(Note: "Dawn" is the second chapter of the novel Two Dancing on the Red Earth. It's the last chapter I wrote in Cambridge. After I wrote the first draft, I almost abandoned the project completely. It wasn't until the possibility of presenting a creative writing dissertation presented itself that I went back to the story, this time to complete it. When I originally wrote this chapter, I had done zero research, no outlining and no planning. I had a very vague idea of who the characters were and where they would end up. The journey itself came about after a lot of research and planning. I have very detailed notes somewhere of where I wanted to take them, their family trees and the history of Puerto Rico, as it was happening around them. But that all came from months and months of research.
The character of Jesús Saavedra is very loosely based on my paternal grandfather. Like my grandfather, Jesús is the last person born on Mona Island, here represented by the Island of the Iguanas, and, physically, they are much alike. I gave Jesús a lot of my grandfather, including many of his adventures, but he's not intended in any way to be a proxy for him. Jesús is intended to be everyman, or specifically, every Puerto Rican. A man who doesn't necessarily want to make history, but watches history unfold around him. He's a man whose only real desire in life is to be happy, even though that dream always looks farther away.
Once again, the Gaiman influence is painfully obvious to me, as I re-read this text. It's amazing how much a powerful writer like Neil Gaiman can do.)
The first time Jesús Saavedra saw his grandfather, the Sea slapped him with its cold, wet fingers. The Sun shone brightly, and a patch of clouds disappeared into the horizon away from the Island of the Iguanas.
The Island of the Iguanas is a very desolate place.
A desert rock.
It lies largely ignored some 50 miles from the coast of the main Island. In this remote location live giant reptiles that have chosen that land as their home and refuse to live anywhere else, even if it means their disappearance from this world. Their skin is hard but soft to the touch, painted a dark gray like rocks in a full moon. They strut their weight with great pride while their spines, running the length of their backbone, wiggle in an ancient dance.
The iguanas have been here a long time.
Longer than humans care to remember.
Longer than humans have existed.
They have owned this land for a very long time.
The iguanas remember when this place was barely touched by human hands and hunger. Back then the earth was a bright orange with wild streaks of red, much like wounds in the infertile flesh of the isle. There was a time when the only vegetation reached to your waist, tough bushes with their leaves as brown as their branches.
The iguanas aren’t greedy. They share their land freely and happily. But only to those who love their land as much as them. Now, years after, the land is ripe with growing trees from distant lands and carefully collected water for human thirst. It is not the island the Iguanas remember.
The Island of the Iguanas was once a place of strange beauty and awe.
The only visitors its giant reptilian inhabitants see anymore are curious tourists, people who fancy themselves explorers and survivalists, only to return some days later to their conditioned air, foggy nights and daily planners.
The island now only carries with pride the ancient remnants of a dead civilization, murdered by the explorers and survivalists of old, and the lost daughter of Gustav Eiffel, her heroic light long since darkened, her house abandoned and her once beautiful body eaten by metal cancer. Relics of times past and never recollected, never written.
But the Island of the Iguanas wasn’t always like that.
Even in the ages where desert covered its reddish earth.
Once it was alive.
Even long after the final death throes of the peaceful ancient natives , children played in the island’s sand and sang cheerful songs to their reptilian neighbors. Young men, miners from the big island and forgotten towns in old countries, chanted in unison with all the air their shit filled lungs could muster trying to forget their exile in the caves of dung. Through their inner ears, the ancient iguanas heard long conversations during the nights that illustrated for them the whole world out there. A world of flowing rivers, bright red flamboyanes, powerful caobas and little San Pedritos fluttering in the sky with amazing greed and red hues.
True, they weren’t many people there, the Island was never a silver city, a beacon of civilization, human achievements and greatness, but the iguanas remember what they saw. They remember sharing their piece of earth with kindly hearted mothers who tended a land they loved. They remember the beautiful human chants of old, full of sadness, longing and fading youth. Chants that were different from those of birds, trees or the wind.
Iguanas live long years and have even longer memories.
Now they are alone.
But they remember.
The iguanas liked to lounge in the white, flour like sands of the long beaches of the island. Luz María Cordero was standing at Playa Uvero, with her feet being caressed by glancing waves, while the iguanas stared at her attentively as if they knew all that was coming and all that was behind.
The iguanas already knew of the suffering Luz María was going to go through the rest of her life. They already knew of her struggles and her victories. They knew of Samuel, the tall blonde man with the light blue eyes and the enchanting smirk and all that he meant. . .or would mean. They already knew of her death, decades from now, in a nice nursing home while accompanied by her beloved son, lovingly stroking her now white hair, her daughter standing a step back, maybe with apathy, maybe with even with disdain, and her grandchildren, some staring with tears on their cheeks, a few with indifference, perhaps, their husbands and wives, confused and a bit uncomfortable, standing exactly two paces away from the bed all, except one. And her great‑grandchildren, some barely walking then, not knowing they would be asked for the rest of their lives if they remembered their great‑grandmother. A question to which they answered yes secretly knowing they had no memory of her and wishing with all their hearts that they did.
But that was a lifetime away.
In a different reality, a different place.
What the iguanas saw standing before them was a healthy, robust woman of some twenty years. Her skin had been darkened by the sun to a color far away from her usual milky white complexion. She wore a loose housedress, with which the wind played with marking her pregnant belly in its full beauty.
She stood alone.
She was waiting.
She waited for her husband to come back from the Island of the Monks and take her back to the main Island, so she could have her baby in her own town, with her own people, like civilized people do. She wanted a midwife, she wanted a priest. All the conventions that money could get for her.
She loved the Island of the Iguanas, but her stay there was usually just a resting stop in their usual wood trading (smuggling?) route between the main Island and the Island of the Monks. The island was, after all, a patch of earth in the deep canal that connected two bigger islands, the irretrievable east and west pieces of a lost and forgotten land.
This time she had stayed on this island because she felt she couldn’t sail anymore with her belly this big. Her sister had stayed with her. Her husband had sailed on. Alone.
Now she longed to go back home, and she waited for her husband.
She scanned the horizon. There were no clouds in the sky except the few clouds of a storm in the west horizon, whose constant barrage of thunder obscured the booming sounds of an unreal war being fought not very far away. The horizon showed no sign of sails or wooden hope.
The dull pain she had been feeling suddenly turned into a sharp cramp.
Luz María instinctively knew what was going on.
Without thinking, she swung her arms, looking for something to grab, something to hold on to. Her hand grasped air and she fell to her knees. A wave splashed beneath her.
The cramp stopped for a few minutes. Then the pain began again, worse than before.
The iguanas watched silently.
In the few minutes between cramps, Luz María tried to move, at least crawl, in desperation and fear. She clawed at the sand, trying to move her agonizing body. But another ripple of pain paralyzed her just a bare pace from where the waves hit.
There was a scream, a scream unlike any the iguanas had heard. Not even when young boys got crushed by iron carts covered with guano and their lives escaped through their mouths had they produced a scream such as this.
Luz María was in a panic. She breathed rapidly, taking shallow breaths.
Her husband had not arrived, and only her sister was near. The other people in the island were too far away to hear her screams.
She didn’t want her first born to be born here, far away from the people she loved. She didn’t want this to happen. She wanted this to stop.
Stop, stop right now.
Please, please stop.
Oh, will you wait?
Wait a little bit longer?
But there was no way of stopping it now. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew it, but she was fighting it.
It took another wave of pain for her to acknowledge it.
She let out a scream, a mix of desperation, pain and acceptance.
The iguanas knew this scream.
With her mind she reached out as her pain covered her body. She reached out to her sister to come to her aid, to her God to help her through this, and to her husband to announce the arrival of their child.
It was at this moment, this moment of incredible pain and vision beyond mortal perception, that she realized why her husband had not arrived. She knew why he would never do so As her body twisted in agony, her mind saw her husband struggling for the last time.
She now believed she would be alone.
She was wrong.
She was never alone, never in her life.
Even after her son had moved out and the last pupils of her boarding house left, she was never alone.
Even after Samuel died, a death marked with a mixture of indifference, pain and frustration, she was never alone.
The iguanas knew this and would have told her, if she had ever bothered to ask.
Warned by her scream, Luz María’s sister suddenly arrived. She ran youthfully and knowingly towards her sister. Although younger (almost a child), and inexperienced, she knew what she had to do. For Yara, better known to her grand‑nieces and grand‑nephews as Titi Yari, their beloved and favorite great‑aunt with the temper they loved to hate, until the day she died on a hospital bed with tubes coming out of her mouth, tubes taking the blood out of her body, her chest held together by metal staples that impeded her always loving heart from bursting out, but her spirit untouched. She had already decided that she had lived a long life and was quite satisfied by it and was struggling to get the doctor to shut the ventilator off so that she could be with the people she loved.
For her, this would be the only birth she ever witnessed, for she never would have children of her own and made up for it by cherishing her soon to be born nephew more than anything else, even her own married life, even more than her yet to be born niece.
Yara took Luz María’s hand. With all of her strength and the strength given to her by generations of womanhood buried inside of her, she dragged her crying, hurting sister into the soft sand. She produced a long knife, a knife which she always carried around when on the island, partly because of paranoia and partly to cut the fruits off the cactus, a fruit she loved very much and was the only sweet thing this desert island produced and placed it in the sand next to it. There was no time to boil it, not time for anything really, just enough time to spread her sister’s legs apart and pray to all the saints
Con Dios y con la Virgen.
Luz María pushed on and off for some minutes as the sea danced next to them and the iguanas watched from the distance.
Her forehead was full of sweat. Her eyes were red, the capillaries bursting with the effort.
Luz María’s birth canal, gushing out blood, suddenly gave way to life.
First the head came out, covered with blood and colored with streaks of white by the delicate sand. The shoulder made its first appearance, a shoulder which would love to hang black zoot suits on itself, years later in the bowels of New York.
Yara gently pulled, screaming at her sister to push.
¡Empuja, coño, empuja!
The iguanas looked in awe and joy as the baby came into this world on their island. Yara cut the umbilical cord with her cactus fruit knife, and a still pulsating piece fell onto the once white sands, now covered with the flow of beginning life.
As if it were a ritual, Yara held the newborn baby in amazement while Luz María cried tears of joy and relief.
The baby didn’t cry. He never made jerky movements. He moved with the swiftness that would characterize him for the rest of his life. His skin was the color of his mother’s, as if it had been sunburned by years under the watchful eye of the ancient god, but the baby had never seen the shining star ever before. Slowly, carefully, like a planned move, he opened his eyes into the world for the first time as Yara held him in her hands. He gently rolled his eyes towards his crying aunt
Yara and the baby’s eyes met for the first time. Yara let out a gasp. At that moment, the baby’s stare was of a dark blue, that of the sea in a violent storm. His eyes carried an unnatural sadness, like a burden heavily carried by any one man.
He seemed as if he already knew of the happenings of that day, the history that had been changed, the new line that had been drawn and the struggles of his own life.
It was a stare that would make some people uncomfortable every time their eyes met his. It would make some people avoid his look, his wondrous, magical stare.
It would give some people a sudden sense of inner peace, a powerful sense that even as the world tumbled into madness, everything would be all right.
It would also make some people cry.
It would make some people fall in love with him.
More than life itself.
The baby with the sad, magical, then-blue eyes moved his glance away from his still amazed aunt and looked at the horizon. There, Jesús Saavedra, soon to be named saw his grandfather for the first time.
It was not a dream, not his imagination.
His grandfather stood there, seen only by those sad, heavy eyes and wise reptilian stares. He had just arrived, limping over the sea as much as his own destiny had let him. Stretching his ability to break the barriers. The baby smiled at him. His grandfather gave him a boyish smirk.
With him stood three smiling men with perfect white teeth. One had skin that glowed golden with the day’s bright sun. He took a shell in his hands and blew a ghostly sound that mixed with the sea wind. The second was clad in glinting metal, his helmet adorned with a huge red feather that seemed to dance to the music. The third man, the man with the dark skin, slowly moved to the beat, the broken shackles that hung from his hands clinking in unison.
As grandson and grandfather met for the first time, the beginnings of the greatest friendship the boy with the sad eyes would ever know, except for hers, a wave crashed violently and splashed the newborn with water, salt and foam. The Sea was welcoming one of its own. It was the only baptism the boy with those sad, then blue eyes ever received.
Having witnessed what they were here to witness, the iguanas silently nodded at destiny validating itself. Then they slowly made their way through the sand into the forest of bushes beyond where they slept.
And only that night, they dreamt of the past and what the future might hold.