Aiken In Check

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Aiken In Check

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“TO A WISE MAN, the whole earth is open, because the true country of a virtuous soul is the entire universe.” So said Democritus, father of atomic theory, half a thousand years before Christ. You folks would like him. Rejecter of the polytheism of his forebears and denier of the monotheistic deity hurrahed by contemporaries Plato (who hated ol’ Democritus), and juvey upstart Aristotle (who liked everybody), like Castro, Democritus lived without need for that other fantastical white-bearded, robed old man: God.

For Democritus, knowledge of objects, situations, and events arrives to us through the senses with perception, or through the mind with thought. It’s an atomic process. “Soul atoms” are emitted from everyone and everything around us—not only that which is within our physical and visible range, but from the entire planet, our solar system, the stars, infinite space. Soul atoms lust soma. And so, emanating from everything in the universe, they hungrily seek to attach to us and enter our minds. Their function? Soul atoms create our dreams. What we see sleeping—the lives and worlds actual, parallel, alternate—of what has, will, might, or never-in-a-million-years happen. Fidel Castro never met Sigmund Freud who never met a Seneca tribesman who never met Democritus, yet all of them have one thing in common: the closest things to the concept of God, or a god-hand that moves us, are dreams. Dreams are the imprint of the soul.

I dream of Cuba.

I dream of Cuba in fragments and across time. Fragments I sift from the earliest hours of March 15, 1978, when I meet Nina slamming shots of Rhum Duquesne at the Ear Inn in New York City, toasting the tropical splendor of her island birthplace (yet unventured with her—a link in the chain that manacles past unhappened to present unhappiness dragged behind me). Dream fragments strained with nameless Cubans who return to me from 1991, queued at leaking pipes with pots, buckets, cans, bowls, and old inner tubes in their daily battle for water; dream-strained fragments of Nina’s childhood intimately transuded her soul atoms to mine this long-ago year into which I now dream my reality.

At night, my spirit floats outside the walls of her family home in Vedado. I watch the sea hibiscus flowers by the gate change yellow to red across the seasons as Nina comes and goes across dream-moments. She blossoms from white christening dress to suspendered red skirt and white blouse that becomes the simple tobacco university frock as she flourishes in Party privilege: a child of a Revolution comandante.

The avid soul atoms of her comandante father, attaching unseen to me during our brief personal contact, flood into me from across time and space. I am his sadness, dreaming of Cuba, a patriot slowly crushed by the broken promises he fought for so hard and so truthfully. I hover ghostly behind him at his ministry windows, and we watch the private cars of robust middle-class prosperity converted to taxis and soon outnumbered by them; taxis outnumbered by Czech buses, outnumbered by their own passengers, outnumbered by horse carts.

I dream I am his shadow. That amorphous piece of HOUNDFOX, stretching from his feet along the calles and los callejones he secretly wanders secret nights. Los barrios bajos of La Habana Vieja, the decay of Centro Habana, HOUNDFOX dodging the falling chunks of mortar, bricks, stone that pound me as his silhouette; I glide over hanging balconies and dangling crown moldings of decomposition that never sleeps. He casts me from his quiet footfalls onto the house fronts black enough, and the windows blacker, where the sound of gnawing rats inside the peeling walls mixes with voices hopeful, cheerless, dogmatic, dissident, angry, proud, drunk, sober: all timbred miserable beyond. I dream in crumbling fragments those wandering nights of solitary disappointment growing into disgust as a revolutionary’s aspirations become a heart’s revolt. He gives out the never-enough coins in his pockets to the brown, black, white, yellow, scanty clothed and meager, scowling, ragged; to wolfish children he meets on doorsteps; to the domino-playing old men at rickety tables in the street; the languid putas in the backlit doorways. Always more of them than the coins he has, and those deprived by chance and contrived of jealousy have long ago done the state’s service and reported this night man. A trap laid, but in his office—I, cast upon his wall—we learn this, and we stay away for two years of hallucinatory seconds/infinity and Nina’s school scarf of blue rolls into a red communist neckerchief she wears with smiles and pride behind her favored flowered walls and Nina never sees beyond them, her unprivileged twins throughout her city, doom written upon their brows as they parrot her robust classroom shouts: ¡Viva la Revolución! ¡Viva Fidel! in the voices of lies, lies her parents pretend and she does not yet distinguish from truth.

I dream of Cuba and see the revolution alive. Time instead of artillery collapses buildings in slow motion; the enemy steadily multiplies as the Cuban people are disarmed of weapons; disarmed of speech; disarmed of food and water and health, willpower and heart. Disarmed of thought.

The ration cards outnumber the rations. One set of new clothes once a year unless my designated store is out of clothes or out of my yearly toothbrush the day of my ration, then I wait another year with the mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers—men, women, children, infants—and we patch the soles of our shoes with newspaper to tread on the promises of heroes—the true believers, the comandantes like Nina’s father—shuffling through hallways and rooms of broken, buckling lives, where every dream ever desired is dead. The dust of battle fatigue-falling Cuba billows in the ever-living, all-consuming revolution, and from the dust, the soul atoms infect my dreams. I am all of them and all of you. I am Nina and her father and her mother.

Age nine, loving parents grasp her shoulders. Nina blows out birthday candles as the moment freezes with a camera’s flash. I am her father’s camera. I am the candles’ flames and vanish.

I am the nameless teenage girl who puts the cardboard in the window where, at age fourteen, she has written in wax pencil: “Condoms 3₵. Screws 30₵.”

In bed with Nina, I am laid bare to a Cuba of palm trees and fragrant winds, passion and desire, soul atoms returning the two of us endless nights to make love on the white sand beach where she’d desired me before, before the seagull fell from the sky and falls forever in my sleep as I dream the dream Nina and I will never now live. My dreams of Cuba all realized in tomorrow’s events I have agreed to: testimony before the Revolution and the world against HOUNDFOX.


Where I lean on Democritus, Nathan Muir put his store in French philosopher Jacques Maritain who said: “Un lâche fuit en arrière, loin de nouvelles choses. Un homme de couragefuit en avant, au milieu de nouvelles choses.”

What I ask, in this predicament I find myself is “if the coward flees backward, away from new things, and the man of courage flees forward into the midst of them,” what is it the traitor does? My path to treason, here in Havana, finds its genesis, oddly enough, in China. Espionage ops neither Nina nor I participated in but to which our fates—and Cuba’s—like the strange patterns of random falling bits of glass viewed through a prism of mirrors are inescapably bound, symmetric.

I shall explain…

Eleven years ago, on the dawn of October 1, 1991, twenty-four hours before the following events would demand Nina and I to fly to Cuba, Tom Bishop went forth a biblical David—not against one, but two Goliaths: China and America.

Three car lengths into Suzhou’s narrow Kezhi Road, between dirt-streaked concrete-block warehouses, he sat perfectly still behind the wheel of a black Beijing-Jeep Cherokee. Primed like the noble stag he resembled: still of body and spirit, mind tight and fearless, he sat alert in anticipation of powerful action.

A whine of two BMW Yangtze River 750 motorcycles preceded machine-gun scouts, high-revving low gears, ready to pounce; the hoarse whinny of a grim inline-four People’s Liberation Army UAZ-469 troop truck crossed his view, revealing broad-cheeked bored infantry in facing rows of three; underscored by the following bull bellow of a Soviet-built Ural-4320 transport, its anticipated identification number 163 confirmed at sight, its armored sides dull, warding away light like the sides of a steel tomb.

For Bishop, those armored sides may as well have been glass. In his mind’s eye, he could know the future; through the sides of the glass coffin, he saw two benches, leg-shackle chains through floor rings, looped through belt restraints to wrist manacles on a human cargo of political prisoners, one of whom was his missing wife.

Sloppy met arrogance and, how-do-you-do no rearguard follow-up, but Bishop had known that too. The fact that everything matched his precipitously gifted intelligence report increased his confidence.

He lifted an active two-way radio. Keyed the push-to-talk once, then switched off.

The convoy passed along Yangchenghu Avenue as Operation TANKMAN commenced. Bishop allowed the engine sounds five seconds to fade. He let up the brake and eased the black 4x4 out of the lane. He turned left onto the broad street of hairy-crab factories where they package the famous fall delicacy along the miles of underwater old city ruins, dark green with freshwater moss grown since the 1960s construction of dams and irrigation systems greatly increased the surface of Yangcheng Lake. (The floodwaters were swift, and those who drowned, drowned swiftly.) Keeping distance, Bishop followed.

The machine-gun scouts passed the weed-riddled Jinlin Road. A crab delivery van with a cartooned green pompadoured crustacean sped out in a swirl of dirt and foxtails, forcing a space for itself between the motorcycles and the troop truck. The motorcycle riders waved the vehicle to pass to the front as the prisoner convoy rolled beneath the crumbling, mold-rotting tunnel of the Middle Ring Road underpass.The troop truck honked its horn and flashed its lights at the crab delivery van. One of the motorcyclists slowed, dropping back alongside the cab of the van. The crab driver ignored the soldier’s angry gestures.

Bishop kept his distance behind the transport. He entered the underpass as the other motorcycle sped out the far end, racing ahead to stop and straddle the road to direct the foolish delivery man away from the convoy.

This was not to be.

A red Mercedes, coming off the poorly engineered 1930s ramp, broadsided the delivery van as it reemerged into daylight. Rending metal, shattering glass. Blasted, showering plastic.

The van toppled on its side, ripped across the tunnel mouth, throwing sparks. It crushed the first motorcyclist beneath the furry claws of its comical logo before it spun into the second bike, whose rider leaped free, hands scrabbling for his weapon.

The troop truck slammed its brakes, nose to the accident, the six infantrymen bracing, confused eyes blinking at their sergeant, their respiration intensified by sudden adrenaline.

The driver of the crab van focused on the second motorcycle scout running toward him, submachine gun aimed. He kicked out his windshield. One empty hand lifted in surrender, his other toggled the switch on an incendiary device hidden beneath the dashboard. He scuttled free of the wreck.

The six troops deployed from the back of their truck.

Bishop watched from inside his Jeep, now last in the convoy. Rushing troops. Two on each side of the transport. Thrust barrels of assault rifles signaling him out of his vehicle.

Timing is forever, and Bishop’s was perfect. He waited, drawing them in, narrowing their full attention on his opening door, revealing himself as Caucasian. Broad and tall, rawboned unforgiveness. His mouth opened round and wide to protect lungs and eardrums from—

The delivery van exploded in a black and orange ball of fire.

Blasts are startling enough whenever they occur, but their surprise is always more effective on someone whose focus has been misdirected. The incendiary device Bishop rigged inside the van the previous night was devised for maximum flash and concussion. Bishop raised his pistol and took out the four blinded, confused, ear-bleeding, defenseless soldiers—all of them still looking at the fireball as they fell.

Bishop ditched his earplugs. Pulled handheld hydraulic bolt cutters from his Jeep. He cut the padlock from the back of the armored transport. He pulled open the door, coming face to face with another Chinese soldier. The frightened young man raised his hands; Bishop raised his pistol.

He showed no mercy.

He was inside. Benches on both walls, as foreseen, but only one prisoner. Head hooded, her fine hands and slender feet identified Elizabeth Hadley to Bishop. He shuddered. So emaciated was his wife the gray prison pajamas appeared impossibly empty of a human frame. Bishop lifted the canvas sack from her head.

Long, dirty hair hung limp from a skull covered with thin, almost translucent, porcelain-white and sore-splotched skin. Her lips were scabbed, though otherwise pale and bloodless. Her once lush eyebrows and lashes had almost all fallen from her face, but Elizabeth’s eyes blazed blue with the cold fire of her indomitable spirit.

“Bit of a different look from our wedding, I’ll bet.” Whispered and husky, her voice shattered from torture-drawn screams.

Bishop worked his cutters on her chains. “You were barefoot then, too.”

He scooped his wife into his arms.

“I knew today would be different when they loaded me alone,” she said.

The moment Elizabeth spoke, Tom Bishop saw a future more certain in detail than his last projection. He understood exactly what he would see the moment he climbed from the armored vehicle, but there was nowhere else to go. Nothing else he could do.

He gently kissed Elizabeth and said what he did every morning they had awoken beside each other. “Did I remember to tell you today how much I love you?”

“I don’t think so,” she said with a wan smile that carried more bravery than an entire war.

She stared, calm and loving, into her husband’s eyes. Bishop stepped carefully into the frame of the rear transport doors. Arrayed in a semicircle, ten anti-terrorism shock troops of the People’s Armed Police aimed their weapons. Bishop stood there a moment, holding his wife.

He watched his two agents—the one from the van, the other from the red Mercedes—hauled into view. Forced to their knees. Shot in their heads. Pop go the earplugs from the sides of their skulls.

The guns on Bishop and Elizabeth remained aimed.

“Why don’t they shoot us?” Elizabeth asked, then answered her own question. “Muir?”

Bishop gave a nearly imperceptible shake of his head. No, this was not Muir. What it was, he only knew by a codename, only briefly and without understanding.

“KALEIDOSCOPE,” he said and tossed his pistol.

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