Concise Prose. Enough Said.
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Four Short Works
By Margarita Engle

El Greco's Garden
Beam Me Up

El Greco's Garden

Domenico Teotocopulo was dissatisfied with the modest colors used to show faith, the soft gold and gentle amber of subdued halos, as if angels did not quite exist.

In Venice he studied with Titian and Tintoretto, then traveled to Spain to deliver the quiet hues expected by royalty. After the first softened effort, he knew there would be no more conformity. His colors grew vibrant, filled with the arid sunlight of Greece, Italy, Spain, and heaven.

At first, King Felipe II disapproved of such brilliance, considered unseemly for religious art, but soon the vivid blue and shocking yellow became pleasing. This was actual sky, draped in tangible light.

I was a child, I understood none of this until I'd stood in a stream of coppery sun on the jagged hillside behind El Greco's house in Toledo, where each glowing Mediterranean blossom exposed folded petals, the intensity of vision cascading upwards, into the house, onto the walls, where paintings of robes flowed so naturally from the skin of ecstatic saints.


The artist feels strangely cursed when each painting of a landscape or historic building foretells its destruction. At the same time, he feels oddly blessed, because now his eerie paintings will be the only proof that those beautiful places ever existed.

He paints the last cornfield, the last strawberry patch, the last wild beach, the last covered bridge, and the only forested hillside, just before the world's last trees are chopped down.

He paints his final self-portrait, right before the government sends an ambulance to take him away from his studio, to the walled medical compound where impossible illusions are magically dispelled.


Cuba and I are growing old together, hand in hand, both of us ready to visit our own distant selves...we sit in rocking chairs and study the reptilian map of our existence, music of names played by syllables of truth and superstition... Bay of Havana, hand-shaped harbor, gnarled fingers reaching inland toward the memory of pirates chasing a golden gleam from mischievous fireflies... Guanabacoa, where lightning never strikes... Jibacoa, lambent beach of artists and monks, where the child we once knew how to be can still levitate in the company of flying fish... Encrucijada, crossroads and crucifix, intersection of backroads and highway, burden or blessing, decision looming... Cienfuegos, smoky hundredfires of impatient souls... Santa Clara, clarity of promises lost and found... Manicaragua, so high in the wild night of mountains that our forgetful eyes are startled by the armored march of orange land crabs, defiant sea creatures seeking the mystery of height...Hanabanilla, forest of waters perennially emerging, falling, disappearing into thirsty soil, only to reappear and be swallowed once again... Rancho Luna, ranch of the moon, where cratered spheres of hope are sown and tended, growing and dying, then growing again... Trinidad, beloved trinity, ancestral hometown, invisible memory where all three of us (the island, the I land, and I) have secretly met so many times, perched on the high drawbridge of kinship, gazing down at the snapping jaws of that sinuous crocodile, the shape of Cuba, the shape of time...

Beam Me Up

I can't hear shapes or see music, I'm not a synesthete, but eidetic memory,
that's something else, oye, listen, this is how it works, mira, watch,
slice a lime and inhale the fragrance of place, it's a form of
transportation, just like on Star Trek, see how easy it is to glide up into
Cuba's coppery glow, tropical sunlight transforming to growth in my
great-grandmother's jungled garden, doves in the wild lushness of fruit
trees, rhymed pleas of songbirds, almost caged...

Then I sniff the dusty page of an old book in an antique store, and
instantly I'm traipsing down the dark hallways of childhood's museum, the
wings of natural history specimens pinned and mounted, animals of the
savannah racing and leaping, their flying hooves held motionless in midair,
each enormous, supposedly miniaturized vast glass world distinctly
illuminated, the galloping herds almost alive...

One whiff of diesel exhaust from a passing truck and there I am, bumping along on a tumultuous bus seat, rattling to the rhythm of goats and
chickens, destination unknown, deep, muddy road somewhere in a war zone, clifftop altars, driver praying as we sway around curves, rearview mirror
ornate with medallions and talismans, strangers whispering rumors in a
language of sibilance, the nearly familiar non-words of wishing and waiting
almost true...


Margarita Engle is is a botanist and the Cuban-American author of
several books, most recently The Poet Slave of Cuba (Henry Holt & Co.,
April, 2006). Her short works appear in a wide variety of anthologies and journals, including Atlanta Review, California Quarterly, Caribbean Writer, Hawai'i Pacific Review, and Thema, as well as VerbSap. Awards include a Cintas Fellowship, a San Diego Book Award, and most recently, a 2005 Willow Review Poetry Award. Margarita lives in California, where she enjoys hiking and helping her husband with his volunteer work for a wilderness search-and-rescue dog training program.

An interview with Margarita is available in VerbSap.


Photo credits:

"Back Light Flower Series 2" courtesy of Sabine Reichel, Berlin, Germany.

"Sea and Sky," (Cayo Santa Maria, Cuba) courtesy of Steve Knight, Ashurstwood, U.K.

"Trinidad Beach," courtesy of Stijn Vernaillen, Antwerp, Belgium

"Cuban Kids Near Cienfuegos," Gabino Travassos, Calgary, Canada.

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