Cienfuegos — J. Haase Vetter
My father told me it was his mother, my grandmother, who first opened his eyes to the truth. “Listen,” she had said, “what do you hear?” He remembered it was morning, and they sat on the porch steps together, enjoying some fresh air before the day became too hot.
He listened and reported his findings; a car’s engine, some type of hammering, the wind rustling the desiccated leaves in their last remaining tree.
“Do you hear any birds? A chipmunk?”
They both held still and listened for quite a while.
I’ve heard this many times; it’s part of my DNA. I imagine myself as a small new infant, safe in my father’s arms, listening as he murmurs this horror story to me, his only child.
In the story, they listen and, of course, hear nothing.
When he describes the next part, it’s as if he’s back there. It’s not a script to him. It’s still real. This new world his mother is showing him becomes real, and in response, it’s as if his soul pours out of his body. Sitting there with her, his vision wavers, and even though everything looks the same, his hand is still safely held by his mother; something breaks in him; he can only see, hear, and taste fear. He vomits.
My father was eight then, his parents were still healthy, and his brother had yet to be murdered in the camps. Their lives were every day enough that the brothers would play and bicker just as loved, healthy kids had done for the generations before them. But even as a young boy, he was particularly attuned to the news about the climate. He saw the fires, the droughts, and the floods, and although he was allowed to live as if his home would always be a safe harbor, he knew the tether had to snap.
I was born here, in the far North, knowing that my existence, and that of my generation, was a miracle. A miracle with an obligation. The first generation of refugees who made it here were committed to documenting all that was lost. The first proper building was the library, built to house the substantial collection preserved by the Morales. The books were the remains of their grandmother’s library, and the building was named for her: The Cienfuegos Library. Upon consideration, it seemed an appropriate name for the settlement itself. The coming generations would be armed with the truth of the past, the hundred fires they’d survived. The library is now essential to us, containing centuries of history that we have remembered and collected from travelers, texts in every language and dialect that have passed through our gates.
My father credits his mother for igniting this passion for preservation within the people of Cienfuegos. Initially, she found it cathartic to tell her story and listen to others. But as they settled into their patterns, she noticed a certain forgetfulness. She knew this was dangerous, and she began an organized effort to learn, document, and memorize each other’s personal histories. Resources were scarce in the beginning. They possessed books but had little paper and only a few pens, so she worked diligently to ensure everyone’s stories were learned by many. She knew it would take several years to gather the resources necessary to fill the library with their own texts, so she trained her fellow refugees to be the library they needed.
The community began to value these histories as treasured jewels. Those early refugees became historians and archivists and applied themselves to this mission with the same urgency that they planted crops and built shelters. We still do this today. When there are conflicts in the community, the affected parties still share their complete histories before any mediation begins. These meetings are so long and sometimes become so emotional the grievances are often forgotten.
It’s been almost sixty years since Cienfuegos was founded, and though we have grown, we keep these traditions. Travelers find their way here occasionally. We trade with most who find us; sometimes, a visitor will choose to stay. We only ask that they share their histories and take the time to learn ours. If they are illiterate, we teach them.
Lately, there have been signs that the world outside our borders is changing. We see more travelers on the road heading South. They share the rumors that compel them to leave their hard-earned security. Old cities are repopulating; supposedly, some even have electricity now. None of us alive today were there during those dark times, but we feel the danger of returning to the old ways, and we’ve chosen, as a community, to stay behind. Nations, allegiances, and wealth can only lead to devastation.
This evening we watch an alarmingly large group approach from the West. Most bands keep their numbers low as supporting too many on the road is difficult, but this is a mass of humanity. I’ve never seen anything like it before, nor has anyone else. The road is filled with people as far back as we can see. A few torches float among them, lighting their path in the dusk. I don’t want to be afraid, but I can’t deny this wave of nausea; my gut is telling me to worry. The norms of our new world demand that we offer these people a place to rest, even if it’s outside our gates, and they must be greeted without weaponry of any sort; to me, a wild expectation when I look at the size of this group. I know what’s demanded of me at times like this, but I don’t relish seeing Governor Rasa approach me at my perch. The community will send the traditional trio to greet these people. Tonight Petro will be our nurse; Mika, our counselor; and I will act as the Field Archivist.
The band is entirely on foot. Everyone, including children, walks shouldering huge packs, indicating a long journey. In the middle of the crowd, two horses, the only animals we can see, pull a single cart adorned with brightly dyed fabrics and cheery bells, potentially a lively site. But as we get a better look, my stomach clenches. Despite the burdens shouldered by these people, the cart carries only a lone figure strapped to a chair. Its bones peek through flaps of skin that stir with the breeze. The corpse’s hands rest on a single massive Bible in its lap. Next to me, Petro inhales sharply, and Mika rests a warning hand on my arm. We all need to stay neutral.
A trio moves from the crowd to greet us. At the center walks a large mangy man. In the dying light, it’s difficult to make out his features, but his manner is not unfriendly. “Good evening, I am Cyrus, and we are the Believers. We have traveled a great distance to come to a place called Cienfuegos. Have we found you?”
I’m on high alert now. I’ve heard nothing of these “Believers,” and it’s my job to gather news of groups like this. My mind is reeling that a group this large could arrive with no rumors preceding it.
Mika takes the lead and responds to Cyrus. “You’ll forgive us if we tell you that this is the first we’ve heard of your…” She’s struggling to find the right word to describe this horde of people.
“Family.” It’s a woman next to Cyrus that provides the word.
“Thank you,” Mika nods to her. “We are honored to be sought out by so many. We hope we can make you comfortable tonight so you all can get some rest.” I appreciate her diplomacy at this moment. I’m wary of this group and want answers, but I know I’ll say too much if I’m not careful. Mika will get information if I stay quiet.
Cyrus is flanked by a lanky teenage boy and the wiry woman who just spoke. Perhaps they’re a couple with their son? It’s hard to tell. I notice that Cyrus favors the boy and puts his arm around the young man as he continues. “We’ve come from the Last State.” He means the place that we refer to as Alaxsxix. His people must be those who cling to the myth of the United States, a country we in Cienfuegos know no longer exists.
“Interesting. I didn’t realize the communities were so large in the West?” When looking for new information, it’s easier to be diplomatic.
“We started small, but others have joined us.” He pauses and takes a reverent look at the corpse. “They are drawn to her message.”
The three of us have been trained as ambassadors of peace, we would never betray our shock, but it thrums between us.
Petro speaks next, “I’m trained to heal. Is there anyone in your group who may need help tonight?” They will assist anyone in need and learn about these people as they work. They’re brilliant with medicine and people.
We see the teen and the woman exchange glances. Cyrus also notices their looks and sighs, “Yes, if you follow Mother, she’ll take you to a family with a new baby. They may need you.”
These people do not look as if they’d rested recently. I have to ask, “How new of a baby?”
“So mother and baby are in the cart? So they can recover?” I know the answer already, but I can’t help myself. Mika will scold me later about holding my tongue, but not now. She hurries off to follow Petro. These people might need more than physical help.
He ignores my jab, “To be among the Believers, you must be strong. We have a mission and cannot stop whenever something comes up. She chose to keep walking with us.”
That can’t be the whole story, but I have a job. I change the topic. “I am one of Cienfuegos’ historians. My paramount duty is to learn about the people visiting us and add these accounts to our library.”
“Yes, I’ve heard about this library.” When he speaks, his tone confirms my worries. He’s looking past me to our settlement gates. There’s something so unsettling about this man. People are moving around us, preparing their evening meals and building camps. Yet he is like stone; he doesn’t seem to register anything around him, but his gaze is searching.
I do my best to remain friendly, hoping to draw him out. “We’ve worked hard to fill our library, and we love to share the stories we’ve saved. It’s nice to hear the word has spread.”
Despite my concern, I’m still floored by what he says next. “We Believers have accepted that the past must be forgotten. The only way for our world to come back healthy and strong is to be born into it, innocent as babes.”
“We’ve rejected reading and writing because we choose not to know what came before. We only know there have been terrible sins committed. We will enter the lost lands and learn with fresh innocent eyes.” He’s torn his gaze from our settlement and is now looking directly at me.
“We respect your beliefs, and you have my word that I will not try to tell you anything you don’t want to know. Still, I would be honored if you would let me interview you and others. Everyone’s history deserves a place in our library.”
“I don’t think you understand me.” Firelight flashes in his eyes, and he won’t let me look away. “But more importantly,” he looks to the corpse again, “you do not understand Her.”
It’s at this moment that Petro and Mika come running and shouting for me. “We have a problem!”
Our new reality snaps into focus. The motions I saw in my peripheral vision were not those of people settling into camp for the night. The night is now aflame with a sea of torches. All are armed. Aghast, I turn to Cyrus. He’s smiling.
“If you take us straight to the library, no one needs to be hurt.”
J. Haase Vetter (rhymes with sassy cheddar) is a teacher and writer living with her partner and children in the Pacific Northwest. Her writing has appeared in Moon City Press, For Page and Screen, and The Grim & Gilded.