The door to his punishment cell became outlined with light from the hall outside, the only light he’d seen for over a month. Forty days, he reckoned. He’d lost count.
The light, dull as it was, barely shone around the edges of the door and a few inches into the darkness of his cell, a hole, really — a hole carved into the damp stone of a fortress 400 years older than he was. He could lay down, but both his head and feet touched stone; if he kept his feet to the right, he could avoid the metal pan that was his toilet. He could not spread his arms all the way out or up.
The cell was dark and small, but it sheltered him and kept him safe up to a point: they had to open the door to get to him, which gave him plenty of warning. He also had the luxury of moving out of the fetal position on the thin mattress between his body and the cold stone below when he became cramped; when he became cold, he curled up into himself again. Some punishment tanks he’d been in had less room. A coffin had less room.
Steps echoed on the hall and stopped. A pause. A quick rap on the metal door by a hand used to such things.
“Prisoner 09141966045, your death sentence has been signed by Commander Guevara. You will be executed at seven in the morning, tomorrow.”
The words were meant to be, and were delivered as, a punch to the solar plexus. He responded accordingly.
“You can shoot me now and get it over with.” (His exact words: “Me fusilan ahora y ya terminamos con esto”).
Silence. Steps echoed away from him.
His heart was beating faster. He felt pressure on his temples, as though his head were in a vise. He thought this was coming, knew this was coming, had convinced himself this was coming, but now it had.
His breathing became labored, as if someone were standing on his chest. The cell was collapsing on him. After all this time, after keeping away the panic of being swallowed by his cell, he could feel his mind giving. His fear: there would be a fire and no one would come to get him out. He would burn to death, trapped. And now his fear had exploded into something else, and he could no longer keep it at bay.
What was different now from the way things were fifteen seconds ago?
What did he know now that he didn’t know then?
He tried controlling his breath. Hold it. Out slowly. In. Hold it. Out slowly.
He saw himself standing by the execution wall. He saw the firing squad soldiers, one or two trying to suppress yawns in the early light, waiting to kill. He saw himself breaking down, the horror pummeling at his stomach: his dead body oozing blood, the soldiers returning to the barracks, some to crawl into their beds again, some to clean their weapons, one or two to try and call their families in the provinces to ask whether the package had arrived, and the world going on, baseball, weddings, baptisms … all going on, and him dead, soon to be a pile of rotting excrement.
He saw himself breaking down before the firing squad, the finality of his death bludgeoning his stubborn refusal to see reality for what it was. He saw himself on his knees, sobbing.
In. Hold it. Out slow.
What was different now from the way things were a minute ago?
What did he know now that he didn’t know then?
He lay face down on the mattress, his arms folded under him. The sheer terror of breaking down had hit him like a high-pressure hose. He knew what that felt like. That was no metaphor to him. He’d been hosed down several times now, a force so strong that it just took him off his feet, laid him on his side, and slid him down the floor as though he was a scrap of paper. He knew what it was like to be nothing before an overwhelming force, when all resistance was futile and all defiance but a gesture.
In. Hold it. Out slowly.
As Juanito Bautista had taught him, he forced himself to think of water — water in a lake, water flowing slowly past smooth stones, water in a vase holding flowers. He had to stop the fear. He had to. He had no option.
He forced himself to see his execution. He made himself stand tall. He said nothing. All that had to be said had been. He made himself refuse the blindfold. A romantic thought. He remembered he’d heard they no longer offered blindfolds. He waited for the end — he’d never hear the guns, so he’d never know it was over. He would not die because he would not know he was dying. There was nothing to fear. Death would happen before he even knew it.
He liked there would be no blindfold: he’d watch the whole thing. At any rate, nothing remained for him to see that had not happened already in his mind hundreds of times. His thoughts drifted to a phrase by Borges, “Whoever should undertake some atrocious enterprise should act as if it were already accomplished, should impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past.” Juanito Bautista had given him that book to read, had said such a thought worked as well for those upon whom an atrocious enterprise were to be committed. It was done. It’d already been done. One only had to live through it.
My whole life has already happened, he told himself, my death has already happened. I just have to catch up to it.
He had re-discovered reading in prison, back when he had a cell with light. He had read some philosophy. Nietzsche bored him. Kierkegaard was too much of a Christian. He liked fiction most of all: Borges, Camus, Gallegos, Guiraldes. All of these books Juanito gave him, and two books on Buddhism. That was the closest to religion he’d ever come. But he could not believe in reincarnation. It was too much like the Christian heaven he was fleeing. One life, one death. He could not divorce himself from such a basic precept. He could not let go of the inherent knowledge of a farm boy –pigs die and dogs die and horses die and humans die, and death is the end for pigs and dogs and horses and humans.
He had accepted he’d never be enlightened in the Buddhist way, as he understood he could not be saved in the Christian way. There was much wisdom in Christianity and Buddhism, but he could not go beyond the here and now, what was and wasn’t, one life, one death. The denial of death was the source of all lies. Juanito said that. Juanito was executed, and he died like a man and like all men. “Tell Fidel,” Juanito said to his executioners (or so the story went), “he can suck my cock.”
He could feel his body against the mattress, and it felt good just to feel. He thought of his mother, who was long dead. She would not feel pain for his death. She’dnever known him. He’d never known his father either. He’d been raised at the Revuelta orphanage, and he doubted any of the nuns or the other children there would remember him. Some people he’d known since would mourn him a few weeks, but they would go on on to their bread lines and meat lines and shoe lines. He had no wife, no children. He had some old girlfriends, but their lives would take care of them. His death would touch no one particularly hard. He was glad for that.
But those bastards with their rifles, ready to shoot, and the guards who would take him to the execution, knowing all the time he was good as dead, probably with a hard-on as they savored their power over him, and Che, signing the death warrant. The son of a bitch wasn’t even Cuban. And Fidel and his bullshit, and all the other assholes who’d carry on after the .30-06 bullets tore his chest into ground beef. Those sons of bitches could do this to him. They would. They were going to. They were going to do it in the morning. They had already done it. It was inexorable. Sons of bitches.
What he wouldn’t give to hang i just a few days, or weeks, months at the most. Just long enough for Fidel to get what was coming. Imagine that — the Americans would come in and get rid of Fidel one day too late. Wouldn’t that just be the thing to happen. The Cuban Revolution: 1959 to 1964, one day after his execution. But the Americans had nothing to gain by rushing things. They wanted Cuba to be an example. They’d just sit it out and wait. Time was on their side. Sons of bitches.
And he was a son of a bitch, a dumb son of a bitch to be in this mess instead of being home, drinking dark rum, smoking a good cigar, watching the rain come over the bay and shut down the sky, and the dark, wet tree trunks with their lucent, grass-green leaves, and the cool rain breeze blowing in from the north. Dumb son of a bitch stuck in a rock grave waiting for some other dumb sons of bitches to shoot him in the morning. Son of a bitch.
Just watch the rain. Just listen to it. It’s in your memory. It is for ever. It is as real as this cell.
He was strangely peaceful now. His heartbeat and breathing were back to normal, more or less. He knew now he’d be able to face his execution. That was all that mattered. He’d seen it in his head dozens of times. He had already died dozens of times. The real thing, he wouldn’t even know it was happening. All he had to do was get to the edge and wait, let them do it for him. And he wouldn’t know about it. In a sense, he would not die. He could only die now, dozens of times, while he was still alive. Try to figure that one out. But he didn’t have enough time to understand the world. No time to be enlightened. No time to discover wisdom to pass on to anybody like the books he’d read.
But the unfairness of the whole thing still gnawed at him. Alive right now, dead tomorrow, and everybody else alive to do what they did: eat, drink, fuck, swim, dance. It was unfair. He didn’t think there was justice or fairness in the world, but that didn’t make it any easier.
He opened his eyes. The hall light was gone now and his cell was pitch black. If he were dead, he wouldn’t know how black it was. He wouldn’t know how cramped it was. If he were dead, he would not know he was a prisoner. If he were dead, he’d be free. But he wouldn’t know it.
And it was not fair.
He thought of a boy running across a street and getting killed by a car. He’d seen that in Santa Clara, years ago. He’d been unable to do anything to stop the Buick from slamming into the child, sending him a few feet up in the air, then down into the pavement, then under the wheels of the car, brakes squealing as the driver tried to stop. Had that been fair?
He was breathing steadily now. The panic was gone. His head was clear.
What was fair about a plane crashing and killing fathers and mothers and children with their full lives still ahead of them? Or how was it fair for a young mother to die in childbirth leaving an orphan behind, as his mother had? And how was his own death any less fair than any other death?
He thought this over, and a steadiness came over him.
At that moment, he understood that his death was just one of a billion deaths, and it was no more or less fair than the rest. He understood this with his body – he was calm, at peace, he felt almost euphoric. The understanding came into him like the cliched light burst of novels, as though time had suddenly stood still and he was crawling out of a dark maze into blinding sunlight.
He understood that his death sentence and execution were just a way for the inevitable to manifest itself, no more or less fair than any other way.
And then, he was enlightened.