Love and Ghost Letters is a richly imagined novel set in Cuba from 1938 to the 1960s, chronicling the haunted relationship between a daughter and her exiled father.
Chantel gives an overview of the book:
Excerpt from Chapter 1
When Josefina Navarro was an infant, her fortune was told. The maid, Regla, knew nothing of coffee grinds, she did not throw shells, nor did she have visions. She did what the country people always do--she looked at the tiny fingernails of the baby, at the white flecks imbedded underneath, and proclaimed to Josefina’s father that the child was to be unhappy and tormented all her life. Perhaps the reason she saw such a future was the time, the past century still a part of the island’s memory, a place where the poor were fearsomely poor and the rich awesomely rich, with Regla trapped by both conditions. Her employer and Josefina’s father, Antonio Navarro, a sergeant of Havana’s police who never lost his Spaniard lisp, was wary of the divinations of his black servant and began the habit of pressing his lips together with his fingers whenever the superstitious maid spoke of prophesy. When Josefina was old enough to understand, Regla would whisper stories of the saints and the sacrifices made to them, she’d fill Josefina’s bath with daisy petals and rub honey in her hair when she was ill, and she’d string chains of colored beads and slip them around the girl’s neck at night. These were the rituals she knew, and she did all of this to protect the child and to make sure that the long ago vision would not come true.
Years later, Josefina would spend her nights pulling together scraps of detail from Regla’s stories, dreaming of damp little houses with dirt floors muddied with chicken blood and Regla somewhere inside, stamping her feet and praying to the listening saints. In these dreams she always saw a beautiful woman on her knees in the corner of the room, praying through the noise of the sacrificial killing. She liked to imagine the lovely figure was her mother, though Josefina had only seen her in the portrait her father kept hidden in his closet.
In the mornings, Josefina would wonder at the presence of her mother in the dreams, since Josefina thought little of her in the daylight. Her mother had died in childbirth, and Josefina often scolded herself for not loving her mamá more, for not lighting a candle for her on the day of her death, the day of Josefina’s own birth. When Josefina was eight, she had come to her father in a guilty, crying fit brought on by a nun, who had said it was a mortal sin to forget your mother, even if you had never known her. The Sergeant wagged a heavy finger at her and said that he found nuns to be extraordinarily stupid.
Josefina found herself somewhere between her father’s heretic views and Regla’s undying faith. She loved the romance of Regla’s beads and her African gods, and these were the ones she found herself praying to every year on the anniversary of her mamá’s death. At the same time she loved the arrogance and pomp of her father’s world, with its music lessons and society dances.
It was at one of those society dances, held by La Sociedad Juvenil de la Habana during the month of May in 1933, that Josefina first met Lorenzo and finally chose somewhere between her father’s world and Regla’s. She was seventeen-old enough for the monotony of marriage, young enough that the air around her was still redolent with passion and romantic notions. The dance was held in the courtyard of the society’s hall, with hibiscus blooming yellow around the dancing youth and clinging to the iron gates that encircled the building. The society mothers lit the courtyard with torches and made paper roses in the red, white, and blue colors of the flag, tying them to the trunks of the courtyard palms. Silver buffet trays, also adorned with the colorful paper roses, held lobster tails and fresh fruit, diced into perfect cubes. On that evening, Josefina was dancing a long danzón with a boy, who was the governor’s nephew, when she saw a pale face looking out from a pair of golden blooms outside the fence.
Lorenzo Concepción, whose visage was made whiter by the harvest of black hair on his head that was framed between twisted iron rails, tracked her while she danced. Josefina matched the steps of her dance partner, every shuffle and rotation. While he spoke to her of next month’s dance and the space on her dance card that was surely just for him, she watched the white face behind the iron gate as he watched her, too.
Near the end of the evening, she feigned a headache, stumbling away from the governor’s nephew. She promised him another danzón and pulled a chair near the white face behind the gate. She slipped the gloves off her hands and folded them, twirled a painted Spanish fan around her wrist, and remembered to press at her temple, frowning, when someone looked in her direction. Often, she’d turn to look at the dancers and would be able to see the white face out of the corner of her eye, and once, she looked at him directly by mistake, then pretended to admire the flowers on the gate, going so far as to purse her lips and pull together her eyebrows as if she were studying the blooms. Though he had moved considerably closer, still the white-faced boy would not speak. She could see his toes, pushing through the green branches of the hibiscus, covered in wet grass. A beetle crawled over his foot. When she gasped at the sight, the foot, as well as the face, disappeared into the night.
I have seen thousands of beetles in my lifetime, she chided herself for gasping, noting how quickly he had gone at her small pant. She picked a fork from a table nearby, sat down once more, and began raking the dirt where the beetle had been, pulling up skinny roots, cigarette butts, and several gnats that flew into the air. And then, as if by magic, the white faced boy appeared again. And this time, he spoke.
“Why are you getting your hands dirty?” he asked.
She drew the fan open and covered her mouth, keeping one hand over her temple,
“I was looking for the beetle that you frightened away.”
“Insects fascinate you?” he asked, backing away into the darkness, his features obscured in the night. She could hear his feet crunching the ground below as he walked away.
“Yes, I suppose,” was her reply. She sensed that this approach was no more charming than the former.
He appeared once more close to the fence, now fixing his eyes on her in a mean sort of glance and said, “I liked you better when you danced,” disappearing into the dark again.
“Please don’t go,” she whispered, “this was all so dull before.”
“I won’t leave. My name is Lorenzo, I am twenty and live alone, I have no money, and I drink rum and whiskey. Do you still want me to stay?”
“Then tell me your name.”
“Josefina Navarro.” They spoke low and hurried, hiding in the shadows cast by the lanterns.
“Do you know, mi amor,” he began, endearing himself to her with the tender mention of love, “I picked you out from that crowd of girls right away. You aren’t the prettiest one, you know.”
Josefina had not known. Her chest hurt suddenly when he said it.
Lorenzo shifted his weight on the fence. “It’s in the eyes, mi amor. The others, while they dance, look at their partners’ groomed eyebrows, search for wrinkles in their expensive dresses-that sort of thing. But you look around as if the shadows themselves were reaching out to take you. Your eyes are huge, Josefina, like a frog, it seems to me. You are scared of something, I can tell. And just then, when you danced that awful danzón, your eyes were bulging out of your face, twitching even, to find something, just like a frog.”
Lorenzo’s voice had risen in pitch, and his fingers, thin like bamboo reeds, grasped the iron bars. He sensed Josefina’s stillness. Her eyes, quite as large as Lorenzo had noticed, seemed larger now, and her forehead was colored a cherry red in her effort to keep from crying.
“Josefina,” he continued, “you stared about you, at the shadows around you, and you found me stuck behind this gate.” He smiled then, barely a smile, so that only one of his front teeth poked out from between his lips. Josefina stood, not caring who might see her, and gripped the iron bars. She studied the half-smile intensely. The longer she stared the less human Lorenzo looked. He appeared to liquefy before her, into one large mass of inky darkness. Perhaps he was one of the shadows he mentioned, poised to consume her in its fold.
“I won’t hurt you. That’s what you’re afraid of, isn’t it?” Lorenzo said, breaking the silence of her hard stare. Before he left he thrust a rusted medal into her hand that he had found on the floor a few days earlier. It was so worn that the saintly relief figure was unrecognizable. He whispered, “For good luck,” and “I’ll see you soon, my beautiful doll,” before dissolving into the humid darkness.
That evening, Josefina crept into Regla’s little room downstairs, her crinoline skirt rustling under the bed covers as she slipped in beside the sleeping woman. Josefina shook her, dangling the medal in front of the maid’s leathery nose and told her the story of Lorenzo and what he had said.
“He’s handsome, Regla, dark and long, like a late afternoon shadow.” Josefina chuckled to herself with the comparison, so lovely did she think it, but Regla only frowned, remembering the destiny of this girl before her and thinking that shadows were not the way to avert a bad fortune.
Regla held the medal to a candle on her nightstand, scratched at the rust with her fingernail and said, “This, niña, is Oshún, the goddess of marriage,” and then, laughing aloud and exclaiming a series of rapid “Dios mío,” Regla grasped Josefina’s hands saying, “It is a sign of good luck.” She kissed Josefina on the forehead and they fell asleep easily that night, with Regla’s heavy arms around the girl, one of her fat hands still clutching the medal.
Chantel Acevedo is a writer whose work has appeared in journals such as The Chattahoochee Review, Prairie Schooner, and The Cimarron Review, among others. Her novel, Love and Ghost Letters (St. Martin's Press, 2005) won the Latino International...