Doña Lebrón and the Tobiano, April, 1989

Submitted into Contest #51 in response to: Write a story about someone who's haunted by their past.... view prompt

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General

“They call it a tobiano,” the girl says and we both look at the pony. Sun dapples the plantain leaves, big broad leaves curling up on the sides, forming the sole shape of enormous shoes. Banana trees and their leaves, larger still, line the road below, but those palms don’t have this odd shape where it narrows and then gets broad again.

“Yes, I remember now.”

Everything had changed and nothing had changed. Forty years collapsed into a single moment as I see her with the pony among those trees. The animal walks toward us, maybe toward the girl, perhaps shy of me. The animal’s nose reaches the girl’s outstretched hand. She strokes the jawline under the mouth and brings the pony to her so that soon it is nuzzled against her upper arm.

“She knows you.”

The girl smiles and sun streaks across her face as the wind blows up the hill from the sea, her white teeth like refined sugar, brilliant in the morning light.

The head of the tobiano nods up and down and is not very much taller than the girl. I can smell the animal now, its sweat sweet smelling, like the fragrance of tapioca root.



They had served tapioca at Alderson for about two years when the woman chef was in charge. She lasted longer than anyone thought she would. Tapioca for Wednesday lunch and sometimes Friday nights too. The food got much better those two years in prison. The woman hadn’t needed to do much to raise the standards - more salt, boil the vegetables less, but it made a big difference and sometimes it was extravagant—butter and ginger in the rice, molasses drizzled on canned peaches. At Alderson the smallest changes to routine were noted and discussed and debated at great length along the exercise oval and at dinner.


The girl strokes the horse in larger movements from shoulders to back and rib cage. The smell of the horse drifts around us.


When was that woman cook there? The time passed slowly, but now, looking back, it had a middle, a beginning and an end. Thanks be to God.

It was sometime in the middle, I recall. At such a crawl, it was hard to think of episodes segmenting all those years, but my journals and poems were my record, poems to hang on to what had happened to me, to keep going. In the beginning, there was the sensation of being burned alive, and the visits of the Virgin came nightly those first two years. Yes, the woman chef was in the middle, I believe. I had predicted the death of the ‘Black King,’ which came to me in a dream a month before it happened. That would have been the springtime, before Resurrección. When Dr. King was murdered the tension was high. Guards, inmates, everyone was on edge, they stopped us from watching TV in the evening for more than two weeks. The anger of his death turned rapidly to misery and despair, and eventually back to the sorry contemplation of the limits of a single life.

But I still dreamed of my country, as he had dreamed of his. I was going to be a martyr too, but God had chosen a different way for me. To be separate from my children and for them to be martyrs too. For me to never know them as a mother, what a mother is expected to know about her children.

Sometime just after that great man’s death was when the tapioca deserts started. And I think once more, standing here in a grove of plantain trees, I shall never be back there. I shall never live in that world again. Never smell those mouldy walls, never see that turgid river snake around me defining the boundary of my prison world, never feel the cold of those hallways in winter, never see snow and ice clinging to the edge of those Appalachian woods, never have to listen to the cackle of broken voices and incessant coughing, the smell of bleach and vomit and fear, or hear crazy Edna’s nightly lament from the room next door, or the waking from a dream of glorious escape to find myself staring up at the same spidery lines on the ceiling. Never again, if ever I can help it.



“You’re Tía Lolita?”

I smile and nod.

“What’s your name?”

“Vilma, my father is Rodrigo.” I smile again but still don’t know what relation she is to me.

“Are we…?”

"My father Rodrigo is your niece’s husband, I think,” the child says.

“Ah, then it is very good to meet you Vilma,” and our hands touch just at the fingers, almost a caress. I am her Great Aunt, I suppose. Her mother must have been Delores, the one who died in childbirth. So many died while I was away. I wait but she doesn’t say her mother’s name.

“And his name?” I nod to the pony.

“Cuchara, a she.”

“Ah, spoon. I like this name for her.”

“Here…” she draws the shy animal toward me.



Forty years earlier I stood on a hillside not so very far away, on another island like this one and stroked the skin of a tobiano. I used to get up early in Lares and help pack the pails for the family before they set off to the coffee plantation. After those morning chores were done, sometimes I would have a few minutes to wander alone. One time, just like this, a long time ago, there was a tobiano in the plantain grove, just like this.

He was more fully grown than this one, but with similar large splotches of brown on white like Cuchara. My tobiano was caballo macho. He lifted his head unafraid and watched me carefully. I approached and he turned away, so I went around a copse of trees and came up to him from the other side like a hunter, closer, and he was nervous, but I managed to get him close and stroke his neck and mane. We looked each other in the eye.



Cuchara has a strong jawline and I gently stroke her. Nothing and everything changes. She is a gentle soul. Limpid big horse eyes open and close. Her breath is moist with the smell of black soil.

“She isn’t supposed to be loose, but sometimes she gets through the fence.”

“Is she yours?”

Vilma shrugs. Maybe she would be.

“My father’s. When she escapes she goes for the sugar cane,” Vilma turns and points down the coastline behind her where the hill drifts away and flattens into a coastal plain cultivated 400 years by forced labor.

“You like to get up early?” I ask her.

“Yes, when it is the coolest, just before sunrise.”

“She loves this attention.” Vilma has short black hair unevenly cut, like maybe she did it herself, and a strong sly smile, and suddenly I see the name in her.

“You are named after Vilma Espín?”

She laughs, her teeth glitter and Cuchara steps backward lifting and suspending a hind leg in anticipation. Vilma strokes Cuchara with both hands and calms her.

“How did you know that?”

“You look like her, I think. And maybe your father saw that too, even as a baby?”

She smiles and laughs again. “We have a poster of Doña Espín, you know, back at the house. She is famous.”

“Oh, yes.”

“Like you Tía.”

“As may be,” I say happily but with a shake of my salt and pepper head. We had both been revolutionaries, but our islands took very different paths.

We turn together, the head of the horse between us and stare out at the sea a couple of miles away, the water a dozen different shades of blue and green, and black. In Lares from no place can you see the sea, unless you are a bird.

In the distance below us, near the road, a Cuban flag had been painted on the roof of the bus stop. The red triangle faded the color of dried blood under the constant blast of sun.


At the trial, they made such an issue of the fact that the flag I carried up those steps to the Ladies Gallery and into the balcony of the white men’s chamber did not fully unfurl. Just like our revolution. “Pobrecita Puerto Rico,” in New York they said, declaring a period of duelo. We had only proved what they knew, “to stay under the thumb of the Yanquis.”

But that was not my cry. My grito was “long live my country, liberty for Puerto Rico!” Our flag was almost exactly like the one down at the bus stop, but instead of a red triangle and blue stripes, ours is the reverse: a blue triangle with red stripes. Only the single star set in the triangle was exactly the same.

I wasn’t able to keep that flag. It became evidence. But Campos sent me another and I was allowed after that first year—after they determined I wouldn’t try suicide or escape—to add it to my shrine between my bed and the locked door. Eventually the warden would even use my room for outsiders who came to tour the prison, a model room, not even called a "cell" in English, but a room, personally decorated as if we lived in a tenement with benevolent landlords.

At the trial I told them I only shot into the ceiling. My lawyer advised this, but it may have been true. The Luger pistol was heavy and seemed to have a mind of its own. The prosecution argued that I had emptied the Luger’s chamber. Eight rounds, they kept saying, and they repeated their description of me, too, red lipstick, high heels, stockings and beret.

The guard at the bottom of the stairs had checked my purse for a camera. “No cameras allowed in the Ladies Gallery,” he said. I told him I had no camera, but didn’t mention the heavy pistol in my waistband or the flag inside my long jacket. How I appeared in that minute when we declared our island’s independence was repeated over and over in the papers. As if high heels and red lipstick was itself a crime. A revolutionary trying to wave the flag with one hand and firing my pistol with the other.

I think I did manage to shoot one of them, the tall one from Michigan, Bentley, but their expert witness and hospitals had mixed up the evidence and lost some of the bullets, and so they couldn’t really prove which one of us had aimed to kill. Oscar told me I should take the lawyers’ advice and say I shot at the ceiling like it was the Fourth of July. So I did, but I still got 56 years. From dying there that day to dying in prison and only God could know why that was my path. It was God’s will no one died that day.



“How long will you stay Tía Lolita?”

I laughed. Fidel had asked me the same question two days before. It was my third visit to his country.

“I don’t know Vilma. Another week perhaps. God will tell me.”

Her smile changed and she resumed stroking the horse.



When I sent “La mensaje de Díos en la edad atómica” to their President Eisenhower they thought I was insane. That’s the word they used. And they drove me back to Washington DC and put me in a psychiatric hospital for months. It was a godless place. The world was on the brink of eternal damnation, men pretending to be God, the world turned upside down, and I was the one they said was insane. And right here in Cuba a few years later, the world very nearly did end. My message was their warning, but God spared them and the Cuban people too.

Back then in that asylum the Virgin had come to me to tell me the news of my son’s death. I was allowed to return to Alderson. I served 25 of those 56 years because God had said it was time enough.


“Vilma, permit me to ask you something?”

“Yes?”

“Do you believe in God?”

She hesitates, surprised by this question.

“Do you pray? At night or in the morning?" She rubs her mouth but says nothing.

"Do you listen to your thoughts Vilma and think that there are messages in those thoughts?” 

I stop as the girl now lowers her eyes, contemplating the earth beneath our feet. Cuchara, backs up a step and the girl and the pony both turn their eyes to stare at me.

“I don’t think so, Doña Lebrón. I am sorry. I know this is not what you want me to say. I am sorry.” She looks embarrassed, but I reach out and touch her arm, the one stroking the neck of Cuchara.

“You must say whatever you think is true. That makes you free, my child.”

She smiles again. I drop my hands to my thighs and take a step away from the two of them.

“May I help you back to the hacienda?”

“Yes, yes, you need to return her to her stable, no?”

We start down the path side by side but it is too narrow for us abreast, so I motion for Vilma to go ahead with her pony and I trail behind.

“Are you sure?”

“I am sure.”

She slow-walks the horse for my benefit and speaks to me over her shoulder.

"You are considered a great hero in my family, Tía Lolita.”

I smile but keep my head down to judge the uneven path. I am thinking perhaps I should have brought a walking stick, but when I woke that morning to the fresh mountain air and snuck out the back to go alone for my walk, I felt like a girl again, and forgot.

“Not just my family, of course,” Vilma says almost as an apology. “All of Cuba. You bring us much happiness by visiting. How is Havannah?"

"Have you not been?"

She shakes her head, "not since I was a little."


We carry on our descent.

"And father says el Presidente believes you should live here, with us!”

           I couldn’t say anything to this compliment, to this beautiful child. The wind blows at our ankles cooling us as we descend.

“He says when you returned to San Juan the bells of the old church rang out even though there were no ropes, and that thousands had come to see you.”

“As it may be,” I say. “Have you been to San Juan, child?”

She shakes her head. “I was born here.”


The wind moves up the mountain. She leads us both slowly down the mountainside, telling me what she knows. Halfway down I stop to take in the view to the sea and the shoreline one last time. I am only partly listening to her, her voice drifts away below me. Nothing had changed, and everything had changed. And with the burning sun climbing higher to the east, the voice of Virgin comes to me again, like a hot sun inside my skull, the Virgin’s voice murmurs blessings for this child and her home, telling me to return to my island and the graves of my children.

           Now Cuchara and the girl have stopped too, and are looking back at me from the path below. She calls out, her youthful voice riding along with the wind, “Are you alright Tía Lolita?”

           I lift my hand and wave, “Yes, I’m coming now.”


July 23, 2020 20:25

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3 comments

J Acheson
20:35 Jul 23, 2020

Lolita Lebrón is a real figure. She and three men shot up the House of Representatives March 1, 1954 in their attempt to spark Puerto Rican independence. They wounded at least eight people but no one died. She served almost 26 years in Alderson federal women's prison in West Virginia (same place where Martha Stewart was more recently!) Lebrón did visit Cuba a few times, but she was "too Catholic" to become a communist.

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Tvisha Yerra
15:23 Jul 30, 2020

Beautiful story, really!

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J Acheson
00:38 Jul 31, 2020

Thanks!

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