Bisabuelo’s Birds: An Introduction to Cuban Psychology
Ricardo R. Cobián
At first, it wasn’t hard to believe a Cuban crocodile had traveled 1500 miles to a Connecticut pond. Metamorphosing frogs with tails and five legs, bulbous sacks of unknown eggs, turtles with yellow facial veins, nightly calls of water cranes; a chorus of ballooning throats slipped me into dreams of fins, scales, and tentacles. No more than 100 feet long, 50 feet across, and 10 feet deep.
“If you get too close to the pond, when you least expect it, she’s going to grab you,” my Abuela would say to me. “But, if you wear your life jacket, her teeth won’t be able to pierce through and you’ll always be safe. Oh, and don’t you forget the zigzag run I taught you! It saved me from many jungle crocodiles when I was a girl in Cuba.” She would laugh hysterically in her beautifully thick accent and urge me on. “Come on, mi niño, show me how it’s done!”
From the moment my Abuela made me aware, my skepticism grew with each year that passed without a sighting. The day came where I first grappled with the weight of reality.
The smallest of any of its relatives, the Cuban crocodile occupies a range of 200 square miles in the lush jungle swamps of the Isla de Juventud.
It wasn’t impossible for a crocodile to leave Cuba and start a life in Connecticut. It’s what my Abuela had done. Replete with fish and turtles, the pond surely had the size and food supply to support at least one tropical visitor. Crawling from its mangrove nest one summer evening, it caught the strongest, warmest current to ever flow from the Caribbean up the east coast of the United States. It glided under the echoes of buoy bells into the warm waters of Long Island Sound, coming ashore one Sunday in Westport on a beach of picnicking investment bankers – the only place a child’s cry of “crocodile!” falls on parents’ deaf ears – before slipping into a storm drain and completing the last leg of its exodus.
Recently declared critically endangered, they are powerful swimmers and run up to 20 miles per hour on land.
In seventh grade, I had a heated argument with a biology teacher who managed to poke meaningful holes in my theory. I realized I couldn’t rely on conventional scientific evidence or probability to support it. Call it confirmation bias, but I began looking for other improbable exchanges between north and south. Ten years later, I have two reasons to believe a Cuban crocodile lurks in the tea-colored, algae-covered, glider-skating water of a pond no more than 100 feet long, 50 feet across, and 10 feet deep.
In September of 1859, the sun emitted two blotches of brilliant light, evidence that its surface was heating up beyond the normal temperature of 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The sun’s magnetic field had snapped and reconnected, producing the energy of 10,000,000,000 atomic bombs. The material ejected – billions of tons of solar jetsam traveling at millions of miles per hour – occupied all the volume within 45,000,000 miles of space. Magnetized plasma shifted Earth’s magnetic field lines. Atoms in Earth’s atmosphere were temporarily stripped of their electrons as they collided with the energy from the sun. They regained them within a millionth of a second, releasing pulsating auroras of red, gold, blue, green, and purple across the world for up to 3 days. In September of 1859 the northern lights came to Cuba.
“Papá, can I come? Please Papá, can I come?”
Marucha held tightly on to her father’s finger as he started into the jungle. Trying to keep up with his large strides, she bounded along with him, her dark curls bouncing with every step. A passing breeze provoked the forests’ forever inaudible whisper. The intensity of the afternoon sun slowly extinguished, giving way to an amber evening light that illuminated passing cumulus clouds. Marucha’s brown eyes and freckle-spotted face were glowing in a way that makes a father unable to say –
“No, mi niña.” He gripped her wrist softly and pulled her up into his arms. “How many times do I have to tell you what’s in that jungle?”
Cuba has no known harmful animal species.
“But Papá, please? Mamá told me that I can break the crocodile’s back if I run like this!”
She dropped down from his arms and bolted off onto the path. Her last zag was too exaggerated, and she tumbled over herself and into the rich jungle soil. She sprung up mightily.
Papá giggled as he wiped the dirt from her forehead. “You know what your job is, mi niña.”
In his hands was a regilete, a benign trap for jungle birds that had been introduced to Cuba by Spaniards from Basque Country. It was a small cage, 3 feet long and 2 feet high, constructed with bamboo. Two elevated wheels protruded from either side, connecting to the lower chamber of the cage. The spokes in the wheels were coated in a light layer of sap, and small pieces of fruit were fixed on to them. When a bird flew into the wheel, it would stick just long enough to be rotated safely into the bottom chamber. Papá always put pieces of fruit in the bottom so the trogons and carpinteros could eat on the walk home.
Cuba is home to over 370 species of bird, 27 of which are not found anywhere else in the world.
In Marucha’s yard was an elegant bird cage; 5 feet long and 7 feet high, it was hexagonal and big enough for her and Papá to fit in at the same time. Every day, just after dinner and before the sun set, Papá would set off into the jungle. He wouldn’t return until night started steeping into the land, until that 5-minute window before complete darkness where eyes and ears strain the imagination and myths are created. In that fourth minute his silhouette would emerge from the jungle, regilete of birds in hand, ready to place them in the cage for 24 hours before repeating the process.
“Papá, why can’t we keep them longer than a day?” Marucha wasn’t looking forward to tonight’s release; the day before Papá had captured a Cuban solitaire, a small bird whose rounded head seems disproportionate to its plump body. Marucha loved its complex, multi-noted, high-pitched song. Its wings were a light shade of brown, and its stomach a grayish white, like a passing rain cloud. She laid by the cage all day, talking to it and trying to mimic its sound.
“Keep them for a day and they are visitors. Any longer than that and they’re prisoners; you don’t want to anger the island, mi niña.” Papá took this very seriously. “You know what my Papá told me, don’t you?”
Marucha did know, and she shamefully glanced downward. “Yes, Papá. ‘If you keep birds for more than a day they turn to crocodiles!’”
“That’s right,” Papá could barely contain his smile. “Go to the cage and let those birds go. I’ll be back soon.”
Birds flew to Cuba over a period of millions of years, and only the most ancient arrivals have evolved into birds only found in Cuba. The lack of economic activity and development in Cuba helps preserve their environment.
Marucha lay on her side next to the bird cage in the cool evening grass. She had fallen asleep there moments after her father left, crying to the birds and begging them to stay. The cage rattled violently, and a loud, angry hissing interrupted a nightly jungle chorus. Her eyes fluttered open.
“AHHH! Papá! Papá! AHHHH!” She shrieked. Terrified, she began stumbling back to the house. Her father appeared from the jungle.
“Dios mío!” Papá exclaimed. In the cage were 3 adolescent Cuban crocodiles, the same number of birds there were before. His wet shoes betrayed him, but even Papá didn’t know the jungle had one more surprise.
As she cried behind his legs, Papá lectured Marucha on the importance of freedom. When he felt she had learned her lesson he picked her up, turning his back to the cage. Two steps away, he heard the unmistakable sound of the Cuban solitaire pass from the mouth of a crocodile, through the bars of the cage, and into eternity.
The day I stop believing a Cuban crocodile lives in a Connecticut pond, I lose what I lost by being unable to read Pedro Páramo without translation, unable to see my Bisabuelo’s wide smile as a bird landed on his bamboo wheels, and knowing that the Zunzuncito is a hummingbird smaller than some of the words in this story and I might never see it in person. So, I keep believing with all the evidence I need, and on some summer evenings I can hear the song of the Cuban solitaire calling out to me from across the pond.