Editor’s Note: The following is a story Ernest Hemingway had been writing at the time of his death in Ketchum, Idaho. It is part of a collection of stories heretofore unpublished, being released this summer by his estate.
Throngs of peasants, farmers, and laborers lined the streets as we passed by. The right hands of El Comandante, Hermanito del Comandante, and Che remained aloft as the motorcade passed through each town. The leaders of the triumphant Movimiento 26 Julio smiled and shouted affectionate greetings to the newly liberated Cubans. Some men waved and some looked away. The women that did not have babies on their hips held their hands on the shoulders of their children to keep them from running into the street.
We were on our way to Havana. The Sierra Maestra mountains were forgotten behind us. We were in the north now. I was embedded with the leaders of the Movimiento 26 Julio. I was a journalist again. I was happy. I was sending daily cables to New York, to document El Comandante and Movimiento 26 Julio‘s victory march from the southeast to the northwest.
We stopped in the city of Matanzas for lunch. Three rivers slice through the City of Bridges. It is the birthplace of rumba, and her poets are well regarded.
The café we took a table in was empty. A camarero approached.
Che asked, “You will have a daiquiri with me?”
“Sí,” I replied.
“No, Che,” El Comandante said.
“Hermano,” Hermanito del Comandante said. “The sun is too far east to begin, yes?”
“No, Hermanito,” El Comandante said. “We can celebrate at lunch, like all the lunches we have had since our victory at Santa Clara. But we will drink mojitos, the true drink of the Cubans!” El Comandante pounded the table. The silverware clattered. Hermanito del Comandante and Che laughed. I looked down.
“What troubles you, Gray Beard?” El Comandante asked me.
“Nada mucho,” I said. “I thought the Cuba Libre was the drink of the Cubans.”
Hermanito del Comandante and Che studied me, then looked to El Comandante. He stared for several long moments.
The sound of his laughter could be confused with coughing from the inhalation of his ever present cigar.
“It is, it is,” El Comandante said. “But today we will drink mojitos.”
“Mojitos para la mesa!” Che shouted to the camarero.
When the mojitos were brought, Hermanito del Comandante asked, “We drink to libertad, yes?”
“Y los Cubanos!” El Comandante said. We all drank. The mojitos were cold, but they warmed us and tasted very good.
“Tomorrow we will be in Havana, yes?” Hermanito del Comandante asked.
“Sí, Hermanito, sí.”
“And what will you do when your victory march is over, El Comandante?”
“Look at Gray Beard, always he has paper and pencil at the ready,” he said. We all laughed. “I will return to my practice. I will live as a Cuban. I will retire into obscurity. I will not live in palaces and yachts as Fulgencio did.” He opened his arms to indicate his comrades. “I will not rule, only liberate.”
“To the coward and tyrant Fulgencio!” Che toasted. We all drank. “Mas mojitos para la mesa!” he shouted.
“Y usted?” I asked him.
“I will return to Argentina, and fight there,” Che said. “I will always fight against capitalist oppressors! I will fight them everywhere, I will fight for all who labor in fields and cafés, and I will never die.”
“Your face will be a symbol of resistance always, yes?”
“Sí,” El Comandante said. He smiled at Che.
“Y usted?” I asked Hermanito del Comandante.
“He will return to his books, as you will, Gray Beard,” El Comandante answered.
Hermanito del Comandante smiled. “Cuba is a good country, and worth the fighting for,” he said.
“You honor me,” I said. Hermanito del Comandante smiled again.
“He prefers The Old Man and the Sea,” El Comandante said. “He recognizes Santiago struggling against the capitalist sharks. He does not like Death in the Afternoon. To kill for sport is ignoble.”
“I do not think Raúl understood-” I began, but the camarero arrived.
He approached from behind Che. Che jerked when the camarero’s arm brushed against him. The camarero spilled a few drops of mojito onto Che’s shoulder. The camarero placed the tray of mojitos onto the table.
“Lo siento,” the camarero apologized, and dabbed at Che’s shoulder with his towel. “Lo siento.”
“Está bien,” Che said. “Está bien.”
The camarero took a step back, and bowed. Che smiled, then frowned. He stood and withdrew his pistol from its holster on his waistband and fired. The camarero crashed onto a table, and slumped to the floor.
Two soldiers came from outside. They saw Che standing over the slain camarero. They dragged the dead man out of the café. Che turned to our table.
“Che, Che!” El Comandante chided him.
“You object, Gray Beard?” Che asked.
“I do,” I said, and selected a mojito from the tray and drank. “You will turn your pistol on me now?”
Che laughed and said, “No, Gray Beard. You are our friend, and you will write of our daring exploits.”
“Sí, I will write of them.”
Hermanito del Comandante smiled slyly and said, “You write always of daring exploits, yes?”
El Comandante stood. “Come, we leave for Havana now,” he said. Che and Hermanito del Comandante followed him outside.
I finished my drink. An old woman appeared and wiped the blood from the tiles, but the mortar was stained.
“Lo siento,” I said.
The old woman stayed silent. I left the café.
Photo: Literary Hub