By Stephen Hull
Maria Elena Peña, whom Fidel called “Moneypenny”, had a table at the Floridita bar in Havana, where she went every night to escape the heat.
She had been Ché’s cat, and this fact made her a celebrity.
Once, she could lead a company of irregulars into a jungle valley without losing a man, withstand any privation, laugh at her wounds, and not incidentally keep the camp free of rodents and small biting snakes. But after they put Ché in front of a firing squad in the green inferno of the Bolivian highlands she turned her back on everything; then she belonged only to history, and to herself.
Regulars at the Floridita knew to leave her in peace, but occasionally a stranger had the cojones to approach. Then Nestor the cantinero, Cesar the headwaiter, and Perdita the hostess would signal each other discreetly, and assume the deceptively relaxed pose of old campaigners tensed for action.
Sometimes these things turned out well. If the stranger was young and scruffy, cocky but sweet, she would eye him through a tumbler of rum and, suffused in the amber light of memory, be reminded of Ché. Then she would purr like the old days, and growl revolutionary songs, and pad noiselessly down Monserrate Street at the stranger’s heels in the pink-fingered hour of dawn.
When next she came in, Perdita would give her a slow wink and say casually, “Aye, did he have nice treats for you?”
One night the stranger was a Russian prodavets in a greasy black suit, sweating under the slow-turning ceiling fans. He was a nothing, a tractor salesman on the prowl for dusky treasure, just another piglet at the tit of la Revolución. Yet he had a fistful of pesos and thought himself a person of importance. He imagined just knowing the story of Moneypenny at the Floridita marked him as special.
But everyone knows it.
On a sweltering night in 1957, Moneypenny lost a toe in a knife fight. Then as now her toes were densely furred, prehensile, quick as daggers. It’s true that she, alone in all her litter, sported six on each mulatto paw. Why make a fuss about just one? Because, cabrón, any wound is serious in the tropics; and any wound is glorious if sustained in a just cause. These things are known.
Moneypenny was just down from the mountains, dispatched to the capital by Fidel personally. On this particular night some painted puta had the bad manners to question Moneypenny’s revolutionary zeal while she relaxed with some comrades listening to son Cubano. Knives were drawn, the music came to a screeching stop, and the puta fled shrieking, holding one hand to her bleeding cheek. Before Moneypenny could swagger back and curl up on her chair a courtly Yanqui gentleman presented her with a bloody object resting in a white linen handkerchief. One of the comrades pointed to Moneypenny’s bleeding paw, swore, and crossed himself.
“Christ, you fight like Lorca at the Ebro,” the courtly gent said. He was quite drunk but obviously in control. “You should come back with me to Finca Viglia. You’d be right at home.”
She did not know the Yanqui borracho until one of the comrades whispered, “Éste es Papa.”
“I could use a good hand aboard Pilar,” Papa said, whereupon Moneypenny bowed low, took the handkerchief, and returned the bloody object to Papa’s outstretched palm. It was her severed toe. (Four years from this night the Ketchum undertaker will discover a desiccated piece of carcass in a glass bottle in the deceased’s pocket. No one was ever able to explain what it was doing there. For her part, Moneypenny still carries the handkerchief.)
Knowing this story, and because he was brave after four of Nestor’s daiquiris, the prodavets staggered to her table. He wanted to see the missing toe.
“Permiso,” he said. This exhausted his Spanish. “I buy you drink.” His gaze lingered on Moneypenny’s glossy coat. Her tortoiseshell markings were like a suit of camouflage. They had lost none of their luster since the days when Fidel used to say she was perfect for jungle work.
The prodavets tried to get a waiter’s attention but no one would look at him. Flustered, he turned back to her.
“You are lovely as they say,” he began, but Moneypenny cut him off with a hiss. Her paws were crossed defiantly one atop the other on the table in front of the rum. Near at hand a cigar smoked evilly in an ashtray.
“You permit me,” the prodavets said, and reached for her paw. He didn’t seem to hear the audible gasps all around, or the unmistakable snick of a good knife withdrawn from a well-oiled sheath.
At this Cesar went to the kitchen and shouted for Bembe the stockboy, who had been golden gloves champion as a flyweight the year Ché was shot. The room held its breath. Everyone anticipated the arrival of shocking violence, like a tardy dinner guest.
But Moneypenny did nothing. She merely stared at him with cold green eyes, her supreme indifference understood to be a devastating critique of recidivist bourgeoise entitlement. Just like that, the groping hand of the prodavets was magically halted in its transit. He stepped back, mumbling. Moneypenny stood and stretched, arched her back coolly, and ducked her head under the table.
When she emerged it was in her black beret, stained and misshapen from hard wear in the jungle and the mountains. Ché had had it made for her, a tiny mirror image of the beret he wore in Korda’s famous photograph, Guerrillero Heroica. A hush descended as Moneypenny tilted her head and stared off into the middle distance, holding the pose.
Bembe advanced on the chastened prodavets. He considered it his duty to fight for the honor of la Moneypenny, but with a glance she shooed him away. She understood the prodavets would be no trouble now.
Nestor made fresh daiquiris. Someone put coins in the jukebox. Almost no one heard the unmistakable sigh of a good knife returned to its well-oiled sheath.
Far into the night Moneypenny and the prodavets sat together at her regular table. He became compliant, educable in the infinite complexity of dialectical materialism. All the while she was far away in the halls of memory.
Stephen Hull is a writer, editor, and book publisher living in Albuquerque, NM, where he is Director of the University of New Mexico Press. He is completing an MA in fiction writing at Dartmouth College, and is working on a novel about Hollywood in the 1930s.