Her eyes were aflame and that’s what struck me when I opened the front door of our brand-new home. Our brand-new home in Havana, in the brand-new neighborhood of Nuevo Vedado, somewhere between its hilly slopes and the riverbed of el Rio Almedares. Somewhere between middle and upper-middle class.
I was six, maybe seven.
She stood in anesthetized stillness, save for clipped bursts of breath that lifted the clavicle of her chest. The beggar woman had just climbed three flights of stairs to get to our home, its entrance an accordion of concrete steps with decorative patterns of seashells. It was a mezzanine of sorts, these steps; a prelude. They led to stairs that looked as if they were suspended in air, just one concrete beam down the middle supporting the entire structure.
In her arms, the woman held a baby. She held it at her waist, not at her chest. She held it as if the weight of the child would have her drop it any minute.
Now she moved. She shifted her weight slightly, tightened one arm around the child, swung out the other and in silence, opened a pink-white palm to me.
I called out over my shoulder, my eyes not leaving the woman’s face. “¡Mami!” Clicketty-clack my mother’s stilettos on the mirrory terrazzo floor.
Mami stopped when she saw it was just the beggar woman. “Just a minute,” her voice large from the other end of the living room.
A look of hope lifted the woman’s face, a face of ashen brown grimed with streaks of dirt. Years later, I would see the picture of a copper-faced woman on the cover of National Geographic with the same burning eyes and that’s what I would remember, the beggar woman standing silent before me on our front porch.
A breeze lifted the fringes of the woman’s shawl. It was then that I saw the baby’s tiny torso, tinier than the Thumbelina dolls Santa Claus had brought me and my sister and best friends Alina and Anita up the hill; tinier than the baby dolls the Three Wise Men would bring in a few days, the 6th of January, the Day of Epiphany, celebrating the showing of Baby Jesus to the Magi.
And that was the thing about living in Nuevo Vedadoand having friends like Alina and Anita and attending The Philips School where the first half of the school day you spoke only English. You were Americanized. And that was a good thing, to be Americanized, because Santa’s flying reindeer stopped at your house and the Magi’s camels climbed up your front steps to bring you Parcheesi and hula hoops and Sears portable record players that opened and closed like suitcases and played Take Me Out To the Ballgame and other American things.
And now, a disquieting silence. Something in the woman’s eyes consumed me. It wasn’t that they were aflame in anger. Not exactly. It was some sort of impatience. Hunger, maybe. Yes, that was it. Hunger.
My mother clicketty-clacked back to us. The woman’s face opened up again. I stood back and watched as my mother laid a can of condensed milk on the pink-white of the woman’s palm. It’s too heavy, I said, but not aloud, for the beggar woman to carry a can of milk and the baby, too.
The woman wedged the can in the curve of her armpit, but the can fell to the floor, its dented Pet’s Milk sad-cow label rolling down the incline of our porch, Kla-klá, Kla-klá, Ka-klá, like the yaw of a limping man, Kla-klá, Kla-klá, Kla-klá.
I thought of Sunday. I thought of every Sunday when my father made us go to church with him. Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church (really, Father Juan’s Church). My father didn’t much like it when Mami wouldn’t go, which was often. “Instead of practicing all that brujería, all that tribal primitive nonsense,”—he’d look down the length of her—“go to church with me and your daughters. You live in Nuevo Vedado now, not Guanabacoa.” The small town on the outskirts of Havana where my mother grew up.
I thought of Sundays when Father Juan shoved a round wicker basket on a long wooden stick at us and if someone didn’t toss American dollars into the wicker basket, he’d hold the basket in front until the person did. “It’s for the Catholic Church,” Father Juan would say when standing high in the white-marbled altar with big brown crucifix. “The Catholic Church that will give to the poor.”
And I thought of my second-grade teacher at The Philips School who said we shouldn’t even have any poor. She said she would quote a great man: “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day.” Or something like that. “Teach a man to fish and he will eat for life.”
And now the beggar woman pivoted half a turn and retreated like a wounded animal with no fish but with a can of Pet’s Condensed Milk. She began the descent through the three flights of stairs leading to our home.
Wait! I wanted to call out to her, but I didn’t. I ran to the edge of the balcony, took a little jump, my stomach on the black wrought-iron rail. My eyes followed the woman as she shambled down the hill, her figure becoming smaller, my chance to do right becoming smaller with each of her steps.
“¡Niña!” Mami said. “Don’t lean over like that. La cabeza pesa mas que el cuerpo.” I could fall, she said. The head, it weighs more than the body.
Magda Montiel Davis experienced the pre- and post-revolution culture of her homeland of Cuba, the American South of the sixties, and Miami. Kissing Fidel: a Memoir of Cuban-American Terrorism in the United States was recently awarded the 2020 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction and will be published in the Fall 2020. Magda is a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, where she was awarded an Iowa Arts Fellowship. She is also a former Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress, and a graduate of the University of Miami School of Law. An immigration lawyer, she was the first recipient of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s national Pro Bono Award and named in Best Lawyers in America. Her writing has appeared in Best Women’s Travel Writing, internationally in Sweden’s Gränslös, and was awarded the 2019 Earl Weaver Baseball Writing Prize. Magda divides her time between Iowa City, a UNESCO City of Literature, and in Key Biscayne, Florida, dangerously close to Miami.