Excerpt: Tales from the Cuban Empire by Antonio Jose Ponte

“A Knack for Making Ruins”

For Reina María Rodríguez

“When you need to add to the size of your house and there’s no courtyard in which to build anything more, no garden, not even a balcony; when you need more room and you live with your family in an interior apartment, the only thing left to do is to lift your eyes and discover that the ceiling is high enough so another level could be fitted in, a loft. In short, you discover the vertical generosity of your space, which allows the raising of another house inside.

“When you’ve erected the loft and you live, if you can call it that, with a certain amount of comfort with the family, then if your mother-in-law and your wife’s niece come from the provinces, ready to stay in your house for a, stretch as long as life itself, the only thing you can do is pay a visit to the psychiatrist. Because you dislike your wife’s mother so much by now, you can no longer sit at the same table with her, and the same goes for that pest of a niece. And also because, crammed together the way you all are, you’re unable to sleep with your wife and that will drive you to divorce, which would be the least of it, to say nothing of madness and suicide.

“The psychiatrist is then going to ask you if you’re willing to follow whatever measures he may suggest to you, no matter how weird they may seem. And you say yes, because you want to be cured, because you now consider yourself sick. Can you acquire a young goat, a kid? he asks you. A live one, he adds. Yes, you respond. Buy it and take it to your house, that’s what he orders you to do. And come back for another consultation in two weeks.

“To raise a goat in a loft may not be as weird as living with a mother-in-law. You go back to your place with the animal (your neighbors in the apartment house raise pigs and ducks and chickens) and you turn it loose to live with the family. Although living with it becomes impossible right away. For starters it snacks on all the upholstery, your mother-in-law’s suitcase, and a housecoat. It shits everywhere, smells like a goat, doesn’t let anyone sleep at night. You hold out for one day, on the second day you give the animal some hefty whacks, and on the third you go back to the psychiatrist much earlier than agreed upon. “‘You have to be nuttier than the nuts who come to consult you. What sort of treatment is this?’ you scream at him. And the fact is the treatment begins now, as he explains. ‘Now what are you going to order me to do?’ you ask him through tears. Get that sacrificial goat out of your house, he says.

“Again you obey, you re-sell the blessed animal (such a quick transaction means you gain nothing) and the next day you’re again in the psychiatrist’s office. Because you slept well, your wife woke you up at dawn, the sex was as good as ever, and at breakfast, the entire family around the table, you noticed the affection with which your mother-in-law put more coffee into your cafe con leche.You suddenly understood that life without a goat can be marvelous.”

That’s how I wanted to begin my thesis about lofts. I hadn’t invented the story or read it; it was a real case. The psychiatrist himself had told me the story.

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In the manner of fabled storytellers, Ponte creates a vivid picture of contemporary Cuba-its real and imagined place in the world-through stories told by a foreign exchange physics student, urban planners who discover an underground metropolis in their own neighborhood, a traveler stranded in an airport restroom, a suspicious stranger listening to stories spun in a barbershop, and a Chinese butcher in love with a beautiful daughter of Ochun. Tales from the Cuban Empire, an inventive brew of fantasy, popular religion, science and science fiction, travel adventure, and tall tales celebrates the Cuban spirit at home and abroad.

Antonio Jose Ponte (born 1964 in Matanzas, Cuba) lives in Havana. He is the author of poetry, essays, novels, and stories.

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