Island of the White Rose {excerpt}

A love story set in 1950s Cuba, is a tale of adventure, of intrigue— and forbidden love. Father Pedro Villanueva, 34, son of an upper-middle-class Havana family, is initially non-political but agrees to try to free a parishioner’s son from La Cabaña prison. He and his brother Alberto bribe guards at the prison, the prisoner is released, but Pedro’s brother is killed in the handover. Pedro then joins with the underground to support the Fidelistas fighting in the Sierra Maestra. Two attractive women of the underground, Dolores Barré and María Guerra, persuade Pedro first to obtain medicines for the rebels, later to smuggle arms to them aboard his family’s 40-foot-sloop, The White Rose (named after a poem by José Martí, a 19th century national hero, in which the white rose symbolizes Cuba and its brightest aspirations). As Pedro’s involvement with the revolution grows, taking him into the mountains, gun in hand, his priestly ethics and his celibacy vows are sacrificed.

The terrain was steep, and the path they followed was barely wide enough for a Jeep to pass. After three hours, they reached a point of descent where the track veered sharply to the east.

The men felled a cedar so that it blocked the track just after the turn. Half the guerrillas went to the left, and the other half took up positions on the right, crouching in a thick jumble of ferns and banana trees, their gun barrels trained on the road. Father Pedro Villanueva recognized some nearby plants as medicinal, the names that his father had taught him long forgotten. Any force coming up the track would be unable to see the gauntlet of men hidden on either side. It was four o’clock in the afternoon and Pedro’s shirt was soaked in perspiration, but the group waited patiently in their cramped position for three more hours, like spiders silently expecting their prey.

At first Pedro heard a faint sound, like that of a large dragonfly beating its wings. Then the noise morphed into a mechanical whirr. Pedro could see a Jeep in the distance, advancing up the road from the south. An officer sat to the right of the driver, a radioman occupying the backseat. A machine gun was anchored to a bracket at the rear of the Jeep. Behind the Jeep, two lines of regular army soldiers climbed up the track. The guerrillas let the Jeep pass through the beginning of their trap unmolested, allowing the balance of the column to come within range of their hidden guns. Mosquitos hovered near Pedro’s head, but he crouched motionless.

The soldiers arrived at the felled cedar and had just started to turn back when the guerrillas began firing. There was no escape. First, they shot out the Jeep’s tires. The radioman attempted to fire the Jeep’s machine gun, but he and the two other men in the vehicle were cut down in seconds. The rest of the column sought refuge in a ditch, but the Fidelistas picked them off fairly easily. The battle lasted less than ten minutes, and those government forces who were not dead or wounded ran off into the distance. Pedro fired his gun, but purposefully pointed it away from any target.

He thought he saw a movement in the ditch, and then he heard a shot. Colonel León, whose gun had jammed, was trying to free the bolt of his rifle. Another shot from the ditch. Next to Pedro, Fernando dropped his rifle, and fell into the road. Pedro picked up Fernando’s rifle. He found the trigger and located the source of the shots. On the other side of the track, a dirty-faced, terrified soldier grasping a rifle looked up, his face contorted with pain. He pointed his gun in the direction of León. Pedro aimed carefully and pulled the trigger. His target’s head disappeared. Pedro turned to Fernando, who was gripping his abdomen where blood from his wound spread across his oversized camouflage shirt. It was the color of beet juice, dark red and thick. Just like Alberto’s, Pedro thought. Pedro knelt and patted Fernando’s head. The blood of Christ, shed for you—how many times had he uttered those words offering wine during Mass? The boy opened his mouth, but before uttering a word, stopped breathing. His rifle fell from Pedro’s hands.

“I have to sit down,” Pedro said and slid to the ground. He turned to one side and vomited onto the ferns.

Colonel León stepped forward and put his hand on Pedro’s shoulder. “Good shot, Father,” he said calmly. “I think you may have saved my life.”

Everyone was shouting in victory. Pedro heard the words, but not the music.

“Fernando is dead,” he finally managed to mutter. “He taught me how to shoot not an hour ago.”

Wild with jubilation, Dolores came running, Luis Ferrer with her. She hardly noticed Pedro’s plight. “You blew off half his head,” she cried out. “We nailed those bastards, didn’t we?”

Ferrer gave Pedro a slap on the back. “And our boy here died a hero of the revolution. What’s done is done. Now those Batistianos in Palma Soriano have no reinforcements. That’s going to be a mop-up operation.After that, there’s nothing to stop us between here andSantiago.”

Pedro wiped his mouth with his hand. “I’d like to get back to Havana.” “Oh no, Father,” said Luis. “You must come with us to Santiago. I personally guarantee that once we take that city, you will get to your boat. Batista is finished!” He grabbed Dolores, and danced her around.

The guerrillas buried their dead and packed up the wounded of both sides. Camping for the night, Luis and his officers listened to Radio Rebelde. Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos were having success in the central plains, the two hundred-mile stretch east of Havana. It was almost Christmas, and the revolution’s star was on the rise.

“Father,” said Dolores, putting her arm around Pedro’s shoulders. “You did well today. I’m proud of you. When they write the history of the revolution, you’ll have a place in it.”

“I don’t want a place in the history of the revolution. Priests don’t kill people,” he said bitterly.

“The revolution needed you, and you stood up and were counted.”

Pedro remained silent.

by R. Ira Harris

{ exclusive feature}

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