They were at the start of the second volume of Les Misérables, chosen by a vote of rare consensus after the lector had finished The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The entire workshop had broken into applause at Notre Dame’s conclusion, for which Don Gerónimo, who ruled the workshop as though he were Notre Dame’s wicked archdeacon himself, reprimanded them. But the workers cheered when Antonio disclosed that he had in his possession a Spanish translation of yet another Victor Hugo novel, this one spanning five volumes about rebellion and redemption, political uprisings, love, one that promised to move and enlighten before an aching conclusion.
This had been the least contentious vote in all of Porteños y Gómez’s history. And now María Isabel spent the afternoons traveling far past the sugarcane fields and sea-salt-washed plantations to the hazy shores of France. In her mind, she walked the cobblestone streets of Paris, dipped her feet in the Seine, traversed the river’s bridges and arches by carriage like a noble. She smoothed a gristly leaf between her lips, breath drawn in anticipation as police inspector Javert recaptured Valjean, the escaped convict. She thought of escape, of recapture. She thought of herself. Of what it would be like if someone wrote a book about her. Someone like her wrote a book.
“‘A person is not idle because they are absorbed in thought. There is visible labor and there is invisible labor.’”
Antonio channeled Victor Hugo with fervor, as though their own labor, the rolling of tobacco, depended on his delivery. And in many ways, it did. María Isabel told herself that she, a young woman who ought to be home awaiting courtship, toiled in this sweltering factory because she’d been left an arid plot of land without a father or brother to provide. But she looked forward to each day, hungry for the worlds that opened as she hunched over her leaves, perfecting each roll and seal—news from the capital to which she’d been only once, announcements of scientific curiosities and denouncements of barbaric or dishonest plantation owners, travelogues from distant places she could barely imagine.
Also there were the gifts. She’d been on her way out and seen Antonio beside the foreman as Don Gerónimo read aloud the day’s production and quotas. Antonio had tied his horse to a post and fixed a saddle on its back, something María Isabel had never seen but in La Habana, where the gentry did not ride bareback as in the countryside. That impressed her, and perhaps he’d mistaken her stare for something of another nature, because the next morning a strand of violet bougainvillea flowers lay on her rolling desk. And then, before Antonio began to read that day’s news stories, he’d tipped his hat, looked her in the eyes, smiled.
She’d been afraid, of course—afraid that Don Gerónimo would see the flowers on her desk and call her out for indecency, perhaps garnish her wages or, worse, think her impious, increase his advances. Who knew what Don Gerónimo deemed permissible. His anger was of the untamable sort, unpredictable, without reason. He’d threatened her many times, once grabbing her by the back of the neck when she became distracted by a reading and slowed her rolls. He left finger-shaped bruises that lasted weeks. No man had defended her, not even Antonio. So she’d tucked the flowers down her collar. And in the evening, she’d shuffled out with her eyes to the floor, concerned that Antonio would look toward her once again and sure she would not know what to say.
But the gifts continued—a fragrant, ripe mango; an inkpot with its delicate quill; a tiny filigreed brooch forged of metal. She would find them hidden beneath layers of tobacco leaves and conceal them as best she could. She told no one of the courtship and avoided Antonio’s gaze, though at times he’d read an especially tender passage, and she would glance up for just a second, and always his eyes fixed on her.
And then she’d walked in one morning and there on her desk, unhidden: a book, its spine blue and rough to the touch, its pages a thin, smooth papyrus. She could not read the title, and she hid it beneath the ledge of finished cigars. María Isabel knew Don Gerónimo would think her presumptuous to bring a book to the workshop, accuse her of idleness, perhaps send her home, convinced a woman would never learn the strict norms required of labor. But she raced home for lunch, book tucked beneath her arm, and as she boiled yams over a wood fire, María Isabel fanned the smoke with its pages. When she was sure her mother wasn’t looking, she traced the words, her fingers trailing the curves and abrupt edges of their shapes. It was like rolling tobacco, this need to follow the arcs and bends on the paper, to memorize the feeling. She hid the book beneath her bed.
When she met Antonio by his horse that afternoon, before he could say anything, María Isabel made her request: “If I could be so bold as to inquire, and forgive me the indiscretion, as to the title of the book you placed on—”
“What makes you think it was I?” Antonio’s smile stretched his pockmarked cheeks. María Isabel instinctively gathered her skirt to leave.
But Antonio stopped her with a hand on her arm. “Cecilia Valdés,” he said. “A novella. I did not know you cannot read. I should not have been so presumptuous. I hope you’ll forgive me and accept a sincere assurance I meant no harm by it.”
“Why did you give it to me?”
“I will probably sound trite in saying you embody the protagonist, Cecilia Valdés. Perhaps that is why I am drawn to you.”
She did not know how to respond, so she only looked away and said, “I must get home before dark,” after which he’d asked her name.
“María Isabel, will you let me read to you?” he said.
“You mean to say outside the workshop?”
“It would be my greatest pleasure.”
She handed the book to him.
“Thank you for an offer so generous,” she said. “But I’m afraid I cannot accept.”
María Isabel had thought she was ready to accept, to fulfill her obligation. Can one learn to fall in love with a mind? She regarded the bullnecked lector. How amusing that men thought they could so easily know a woman. She would wait until she couldn’t.
Her mother was getting worse though. This she knew by a cough that doubled her over and shook her. Some evenings Aurelia so lacked an appetite that she retired early and left María Isabel to eat alone. And still her mother woke each day and prepared for her trek to the sugarcane fields.
María Isabel pleaded with her, but Aurelia would work to the day of her death—and afterward if she could. This they both knew.
And then the war bled into Camagüey. Inevitable, she understood. Every year, La Aurora informed of more Cubans and fewer jobs; the economy increasingly concentrated on sugar, on plantations run on slave labor. Also in the paper: the abolition movement, Spanish taxation worse. She’d heard a wealthy plantation owner in Santiago freed his slaves and declared independence from Spain. She’d heard whispers of clandestine meetings. But she hadn’t expected the fight to reach her life so quickly.
María Isabel woke one night to the sound of boots crushing through vegetation and the light patterns of lanterns dancing on the walls. She peered out the window, careful to remain hidden as best she could, and made out dozens of men in the unmistakable blue-and-red of the Monarchy, their lapels bearing the colors of the flag. They carried muskets and swords, their faces drawn and weary, and she saw, faintly, what looked like dried blood on the breeches of some.
She couldn’t sleep that night and clutched her body, heard the first far-off thud of a rifle, her mother waking across from her and coughing in fits all night. They spent two days like that, huddled in the shadow of their bed platforms, as though behind wooden shields. Cries and shots, metal hitting metal, men whose anguish echoed through the noise.
On the third day, Aurelia ran a fever, and María Isabel held her in her lap, wiping her face with a washcloth and whispering prayers to Nuestra Se ora de la Caridad as her mother broke into cold sweats. On the fourth, the fighting stilled. Just as penetrating as the sound of sudden war had been, so, too, was the intensity of the quiet that followed, the stench of rot. They hadn’t eaten in days, and so they rummaged through cans of sugared guava and fruta bomba and tomato they’d prepared months before, María Isabel spooning slivers into her mother’s mouth as she lay supine. And when she was sure the silence persisted, María Isabel ventured out along the path she walked to work each day, now clogged with wisps of smoke, the smell of charred palm. She needed to find food. She needed to find her neighbors. In the distance, she could see fire, and she prayed silent gratitude it’d spared her home. She walked and walked through the quiet, listening for other people, for signs of life. Only the rustling of sugarcane and saw grass answered her calls.
Then, as she made a turn toward the riverbank where she did the wash each Sunday and bathed in the sun, she stumbled over what felt like a log anchored in the grass. She looked down and screamed.
A man, his open eyes to the sky and his mouth a permanent expression of disbelief, had his neck impaled by a sword, the pointed end emerging on the other side. Thick, coagulated blood pooled around his head and flies swarmed the wound. María Isabel looked up, past him, and saw it—a field of dozens of men just like him, left rotting in the heat, their innards and flesh unrecognizable, one giant mass of scorched meat, and as a final insult, a hog chomping through the remains, its face and teeth smeared in dark blood. She recognized the face of a fellow tobacco roller.
The grass quivered with María Isabel, oblivious to the carnage to which it bore witness. It began to rain and she stood there until a stream of red forced a jagged path to the river. Then she ran in her dress, torn and muddied and soaked, calling out to her mother as when she was a child, calling out to the giant unheeding span before her, and fell at the door of their home, her sobs heavy.
That night, her mother died.
Nothing was the same after the skirmish in Camagüey. Porteños y Gómez emptied to a third of its workers, the rest dead in the slaughter that had visited them or fleeing to la Florida, chasing rumors of tobacco factories offering refuge in exile. Don Gerónimo left, and Porteños, the owner of the tabaquería, began to oversee the work himself. The mood sobered, the readings changed.
On the first day back in the workshop, after the weeks of burials and rebuilding, Antonio took the lectern and announced that they would suspend the usual reading of La Aurora, as the rebellion had delayed its delivery to Camagüey. They would finish Les Misérables after the lunch hour, and they would begin another novel, one by a Cuban writer, that morning.
María Isabel could not bring herself to look up at him. She concentrated instead on each roll of the leaves, on making tighter and tighter bundles.
“Cecilia Valdés,” Antonio began, “by Cirilo Villaverde.”
Her hands shook. Tighter rolls, she told herself. Tighter rolls.
“‘To the women of Cuba: Far from Cuba, and with no hope of ever seeing its sun, its flowers, or its palms again, to whom, save to you, dear countrywomen, the reflection of the most beautiful side of our homeland, could I more rightfully dedicate these sad pages?’”
Antonio’s voice carried the workers through that dismal morning. It spoke of the Spanish and creole social elite; love between free and enslaved Black Cubans; a mulata woman, her place in their island’s history. Even so, the author creole, an influential man. Not so unlike the other authors. After a lunch of hardened bread and bitter coffee, alone in her now empty home, Mar a Isabel returned to hear a continuation of Les Misérables.
The days went by like this.
Nightmares and crying fits gave way to tired collapse. And for whatever reason, possibly loneliness, possibly realizing she had no one left in the world, a month later she waited for Antonio and said, “I am not Cecilia Valdés.” And then, “I would be honored if you would read to me from any text.”
From Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia. Copyright © 2021 by the author. Reprinted by permission of Flatiron Books.