Illustration: Fabián Muñoz
The now-distant year of 1971 was coming to an end in this city of San Cristóbal de La Habana when a strange event happened: a horrible monster appeared in a lagoon in the outlying municipality of San Miguel de Padrón.
I remember the morning when the No. 10 bus I rode to get to my classes at the University of Havana was left practically empty after almost all of its riders got off at a stop in Jacomino, a neighborhood in San Miguel de Padrón. When I inquired about this strange mass behavior, someone said to me:
“There’s a monster in a lagoon back there,” pointing, with arm outstretched, in the direction of the aforementioned body of water.
In the days that followed, I began putting together, piece by piece, the unlikely story of the creature from the San Miguel lagoon. It was said to be a subaquatic monster, possibly spindle-shaped and with what might be large and threatening yellow eyes. It had surfaced in the quiet, boring waters of that lagoon and its gaze had brought madness to an old man who lived alone in a wretched lakeside hovel. According to some versions of this story, when the old man saw the monster he ran away terrified and his sudden derangement led him to hang himself from the nearest tree.
I tried to find out if the local or national newspapers had reported this incident, but I could not find a single word about the frightening monster. However, the news ran like wildfire through eastern Havana and soon the number of curiosity-seekers rose from a few dozen to a few hundred. Eventually, thousands of people were visiting the lagoon with fear and excitement, hoping to catch a glimpse of “that creature.”
People arrived in large groups at the clearing where the lagoon was; it had become a tropical Loch Ness.* They say that one brave soul — an elderly gentleman — even dove into its dark waters, knife in hand like a St. George from Havana determined to slay, once and for all, his Cappadocia dragon; or at least, the new San Miguel Nessie.
Because the monster had the special power of driving to insanity anyone who looked directly into its eyes, many of the curious “brave souls” who came to find it in the afternoon — by then it was known that Nessie preferred evening shows — would cover their eyes with fear. As soon as any fan or joker would yell “MONSTER!” the crowd would stampede in every direction…except the lake, of course.
As time went by — just how long it was, I couldn’t say — a brief story appeared in one of the national newspapers under the headline “The Creature from the San Miguel Lagoon.” Under it was a photo of one or maybe two — I can’t quite remember — frogmen with the thick trunk of a royal palm tree at their feet on the shore of the lake. The terrible monster was nothing more than that: a simple, mundane dried palm-tree trunk that was floating on the surface of the lagoon, or perhaps drifting from its depths to its surface, depending on the whims of the lagoon’s underwater currents.
What a disappointment! Reality had revealed itself to be so shockingly insipid that it had left the popular imagination looking ridiculous. Carpentier was right after all. We are a people immersed in magical realism; in other words, we experience the fantastic and the strange as though it were real and routine.