Triptych Number 3: Víctor Manuel

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I. Magdalena and the Mango Tree

riffing off Manuel’s undated painting Landscape with Sunflowers

I am Magdalena with the owl eyes, a long black braid like a horse’s tail. I wear a paper dress & coconut clogs my mother made with spindly hands. She is tall & skinny as a scarecrow but can tell time better than any rooster. She loves me more in dreams, she says, and cannot cry unless an onion is in her eye. Death will come soon enough, she says, so go play before night claims her prey. I hopscotch in the park of sunflowers tall as royal palms & howl to the dogs that take siestas in a kapok’s shade. A dozen widows in cobweb gowns knit baby clothes from jumbles of yarn. They shout in choral glee, sing us canticles to the papaya, lovely child, sing us seguidillas to the chirimoya too. I tell them no, no, you lady crows, it’s two o’clock, merienda time, and my mother awaits with teas of purslane & malanga fritters. At our shrine of cowrie shells, we will pray to La Vírgen de Regla with cups of seawater, lard lights, and I will sign of the cross on her lips, she the same to my eyes, and before the last church bell rings we will dance round our mango tree with ripe fruit big as the kidneys of bulls that graze in the graves of the stillborn, those raggedy toddlers picked too soon, and then at star-rise we will pig out on the fallen stinky fruit with hands tied, wet-earth knees, mouths bare, noses rooting like the holy hogs of Bethlehem, our slopped nostrils so deep, so deep into skin, flesh, & sap of everlasting life.

II. Manifesto

Before they bury me in a coffin of scrap wood with lead crumbs, I would like to paint on a canvas of sweet water with waves that go up and down like butterfly wings in a breeze of frankincense. I would look for my canvas in a river whose shores are the spongy womb of Mother Mary. Isn’t water purer than soil since God created water first? Don’t the unborn float joyfully in their warm amnions until the world wrenches them into a life of penuries and wants? With ferocious tone, your lips on fire, you ask me, Angel of Doubt, how would I paint on water since I’m an earthly creature, the son of mud and the grandson of slime? Whether I’m awake or asleep, you bring anguish into my world as if hope were just flotsam in some stagnant sea. You numb my hands when I take the brush. You make my eyes see blood when the sky is blue. You make me smell ammonia when I put a lily to my nose. You are wrong, so wrong. I will mock you as rust mocks steel, as termites mock wood, as rain mocks stone. I will find my own Eden on that river between mountains, my little boat safe and steady with its anchor of faith, and I will paint landscapes and still lifes with a brush big as an oar, my palette the rainbow, my light that of the sun that evaporates sighs and moans to Easter clouds.

III. Anaphora to a Small Cuban River

after Manuel’s circa 1943 painting San Juan River, Matanzas

River of ruffles, more a creek or a run-off than a proud & sovereign waterway, a smudge of famished water on hard clay.

River of humped canoes & banana boats urchin boys row in flotillas of carnaval as nuns sleep siestas of guava marmalade.

River of red crabs whose claws are claves that chatter canticles on Easter Sunday when the poor get their alms of fatty lechón.

River of shallow houses with beaded doors that welcome multitudes of the wayward, the displaced, the haggard seeking charity.

River of redemption where cradles of corn husk & vine bassinets wash into foundling houses where the scrapped & cast-off bloom to wholeness.

River of memory that carves the stones of sin into amulets of grace & makes us weep our Taíno brethren burned for the Creed, our African brethren shackled to sugar cane.