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Lacking a Field Guide to a Karstic Landscape by Ray Ball

In Viñales, I stay in a casa particular where I am hosted by a physician named Tanya. Her mother helps with childcare, cleaning, and cooking, because, as Tanya tells me, her husband has taken a six-month post at a hospital in another country. She adds that he can earn far more there than in Cuba. We commiserate about how work has separated us from our spouses.

each minute becomes

its own slight shadow of time

an ideal refuge

Tanya asks me if I would be willing to join her other guest Marie on a guided hike through Viñales Valley the next day. I say that I don’t want to impose, but Marie assures me she would enjoy the company. She is a petite French woman in her fifties. She tells me she has been in Cuba for several weeks taking dance classes.

Tanya coaxes me to eat more of the fish, plantains, beans, and rice she has prepared for our dinner. Marie’s stomach has been bothering her, so she only consumes a small plate of rice. I compensate by taking a bit more fish and plantains, along with some fresh mango. It is juicy and perfect. The kind I could only dream of in Anchorage or—for that matter—in Havana.

After dinner, Marie and I go out for a drink. A band plays the same rotation of “Quizás, quizás, quizás,” “Despacito,” and “Guantanamera” I’ve been hearing for weeks. A man tries to convince us to dance. His hand imprints warmth on my bare shoulder. Marie and I make eye contact before we both decline. Soon, we call it an early night and walk back to Tanya’s in the velvet dark. When I open the door to my room, I find:

onyx scorpion resting on fresh laundered sheets refuge from warm rains

It’s completely motionless, so for a moment I can’t believe it’s real. I take a pencil from my nightstand and poke it gently. When I do, it proves that it is very much of this world by scuttling up the coverlet’s seam. I grab the bedding from the opposite corner and wrap it up as swiftly as I can. Then, I throw open the door and toss the bundle out on to the patio. I get very little sleep. I jerk awake each time a mosquito buzzes or an ant crawls across the wall. No chemical pesticides are allowed in Viñales, and I am sure the scorpion or one of its mates will return in the night. The next morning, I tell Tanya about it. I apologize for throwing the bedding outside, saying I didn’t want to wake anyone but was afraid the scorpion might have been venomous. No pican, she responds, they don’t sting. Later, back home in Alaska, I will consult a field guide and tentatively identify the scorpion as heteronebo bermudezi bermudezi.

Our guide leads Marie and me into the lush countryside. We pass tobacco farms, small-scale coffee plantations, and rice fields. We meander by oxen, sugarcane, mango, and palm. We skirt ponds that reflect blue sky and bright green foliage. A montane solitare flits by us. It is a passerine bird in the family Turdidae. Our guide points out more birds, including a pitirre guatíbere. She tells us there is a Cuban phrase “ser un guatíbere” because of how common they are. Later I will look it up and learn it’s a type of flycatcher. In English its name is Loggerhead Kingbird. The bird’s Spanish name comes from the its vocalizations.

whereupon the tongue bee hummingbirds sip nectar palm’s canopied calm

We ascend to the peak of our hike to a small building with a large wrap-around porch. We sit in silence and sip drinks we purchase at the bar. I swirl mint with my straw. Mogotes loom in the distance.

one round it is like a towering castle-keep limestone sky fortress


Ray Ball is the author of the chapbooks Tithe of Salt (Louisiana Literature, 2019) and Lararium (Variant Lit, 2020) and an editor at Coffin Bell and Juke Joint. Her poems and flash fiction have appeared in descant, Ellipsis Zine, Glass, Waccamaw, and elsewhere.You can find her on Twitter @ProfessorBall.

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