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The Aguero Sisters (Ballantine Reader's Circle)


The Aguero Sisters (Ballantine Reader's Circle) Cover




Reina Agüero, cleaving to a telephone pole with thighs strengthened by many

such climbs, is repairing a high-voltage cable outside El Cobre, a copper-mining

town in eastern Cuba, when another storm blows in from the Cayman Trench.

Lightning, intricate as a skeleton, shatters the afternoon hum of the Sierra

Maestra, illuminating the pitted, open-cast mine in the distance. Reina

Agüero wipes one hand, then another, on her regulation jumpsuit as she works

her way down the splintered pole. Her tools clang reassuringly from her belt. In

the evening, she will climb the coconut tree behind the government hotel and

mingle its milk with a little rum. She hopes the concoction will finally permit

her to sleep.

Reina Agüero's insomnia began last summer, on the

thirty-seventh anniversary of El Comandante's attack on the Moncada Barracks. On

the road, traveling for la revolución, it is especially difficult to rest. The

beds are unpredictable, too soft or infested with fleas, and the days are

lengthened by extra work. As a visiting master tradesman, Reina is expected not

only to repair the balkiest electrical equipment in rural Cuba but also to

conduct seminars for local electricians and suffer nightly ceremonies in her

honor. Generally, she eats too much fresh pineapple at these events, upsetting

her sensitive digestive system.

A cluster of electricians applauds as Reina

descends the last few feet of the pole. The ground is saturated with weeks of

unseasonable winter rains. Together she and the men slip and grapple their way

down the hill toward town, a quarter of which is newly lit by her effort. Reina

is drenched, and her jumpsuit clings to her still-curvaceous form. She is

forty-eight years old, but her body appears many years younger. She ignores the

men who linger behind her, mesmerized by the size and swing of her buttocks.

Reina is five feet eleven, a good four inches taller than most of the men with

whom she works. Her mouth is large and flawless, with barely discernible corners.

The most daring of her colleagues call her Compañera Amazona, a moniker she

secretly relishes. Often, Reina selects the smallest, shyest electrician in a

given town for her special favors, leaving him weak and inconsolable for months.

After she departs, black owls are frequently sighted in the ceiba trees.


the way back to her hotel, Reina stops in at the Basilica del Cobre. It is Gothic

and gloomy and unwelcoming, like so many Catholic churches, but Reina has heard

of the impressive curative powers of La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, the

island's patron saint. Reina doubts that La Virgen, with all the tragic ailments

laid at her feet, would bother about a little sleeplessness. But Reina is

desperate. She's tried every soporific--herbal teas and sleeping pills, even

sweet-potato plasters for her head--all to no avail.

Not even the usual

rigorous lovemaking with Pepín Beltrán, her lover of twenty-four years, exhausts her sufficiently into slumber. Last week, during a dusk-to-midnight session,

Pepín's face went slack as he dropped dead asleep beneath her pleasure.

Afterward, she lay awake in the dark until she could perceive every crack and

crevice in the ornate room. Years ago, it had been her father's study, one of

eight chambers in their commodious old apartment in the Vedado section of Havana.

After the revolution, the government rented out the remaining seven rooms to as

many families.

Pepín blamed the anarchy of books in the study for Reina's

insomnia. There are over three thousand volumes on the carved mahogany shelves,

stacked on the marble floors, and on six lavishly decrepit armchairs. Many of the

books were written by her father: A Naturalist's Guide to the Pearl of the

Antilles, Reconsidering Bats, The Owls of Oriente, In Search of Erophylla

Sezekorni, and his classic, Cuba: Flora and Fauna. A former china closet serves

as a display case for his most cherished skins, rare birds and bats long extinct,

specimens he himself stuffed with arsenical soap and that looked as fresh and

alive as on the day he'd shot them.

Pepín begged Reina to clear these relics

from their love nest. But Reina refused. Nothing had changed here since her

father's death, forty years before.

Reina stands before La Virgen's

shrine in the back of the basilica. Hundreds of candles burn to her in pleading

and thanksgiving. Centuries of offerings are piled into wobbly, glittering

towers: medallions and military badges from those who survived wars under her

protection; crutches from devotees to whom she gave the strength to walk; ancient

tiaras, chalices, Egyptian silks, and wedding rings donated by pilgrims and the

miraculously healed. The brown-skinned Virgin presides over these offerings in a

cream satin gown, a gold lam&eacute cape, and her crown, poised and soothing as

her Yoruban name: Oshún.

"Bless me, Virgen, for I have sinned," says Reina,

kneeling before the saint and awkwardly crossing herself. She barely recalls the

prayers she learned as a child, the rituals of the Protestant boarding school she

and her sister were sent to after their mother died. "Well, I haven't sinned

exactly, but I can't sleep, and there must be a reason."

A medal from the

Spanish-American War catches Reina's eye. A year after Cuba's independence, her

grandfather had come to the island from the hills of Galicia. Reinaldo

Agüero became a lector in the second-largest cigar factory in Pinar del Río

and was greatly admired for his erudition and his rich baritone. Reina's sister,

Constancia, used to say proudly that this made them true criollos.

"I'm not

very good at this, and you must have a lot on your mind, but I was hoping you

could give me a direction of significance." Reina unsnaps a wrench from her tool

belt and places it next to the medal from the Spanish-American War. "It's not

much, I know. But maybe when you get a chance you could check in on me, okay?"

That night, Reina lies in bed and considers La Virgen's dark methods

of grace. Reina is uncertain of her own beliefs. What she enjoys most is the

freedom from a finality of vision, of a definitive version of life's meaning. If

she could perceive nothing in its entirety, then why not celebrate what she could

grasp with her own senses? Vive de la vida lo sublime. It had been her personal

motto for as long as she could remember. After all, it seemed futile to chase

what was forever elusive, when reality remained so largely unexplored.


presses the musty hotel pillow over her nose and mouth and begins to count. One

minute passes, then two. If she succeeds in rendering herself unconscious, Reina

thinks, slumber might return. Six minutes pass, then seven. After eight minutes,

Reina, fully conscious and supremely irritated with La Virgen de la Caridad del

Cobre, removes the pillow from her face.

After her mother died, Reina's

father also suffered from insomnia. But his was complete and incurable and drove

him to suicide two years after his wife's death. At least, Reina thinks, most

nights she manages to sleep an hour or two before dawn. Her body sighs with one

long releasing breath, and that is the last thing she remembers before the

faintest light awakens her, puzzled and refreshed.

Reina has thought often of

her father's last night in his study, of his double-barreled twelve-gauge shotgun

of Irish make, which is still in its velvet-lined case in the closet. His gun was

ideal for pulling birds out of any but the highest trees. Although her father

never considered himself a killer by nature, he'd been an excellent shot

nonetheless, as effective on horseback as he was crouched low to the ground. Many

of his specimens had found their way into the collections of the world's most

prestigious museums.

The week after his death, a parcel arrived for Reina and

her sister, Constancia, at their boarding school. In it was a selection of their

father's lecture notes, rare stuffed bats and birds, and a dozen of his books,

first editions, glossy with color plates. Constancia wanted nothing to do with

any of them, but Reina carefully repacked the artifacts and slid them under her

bed. Despite her suspicions, she couldn't bear to leave the work of Papá's

lifetime for beetles and bookworms to devour. "The quest for truth," Ignacio

Agüero had written his daughters, "is far more glorious than the quest for

power." Their father had written this, and then he shot himself in the heart.

It is the fourth of December. Reina is up before dawn. In the

countryside, people are already on the roads and the hillsides. This is a comfort

to Reina, who hates to wake up feeling alone. As the first light filters and

spreads through the darkness, colors seem to her less concentrated, as if

sunlight, not its absence, diluted their strength.

During her long wakeful

nights, Reina mentally inches her way from the periphery of her bed,

reconstructing the world in concentric circles. Everything is at its most

elemental in these circles, pure with the vital sheen of existence. Then a drift

of memories overcomes her, reversing the progress of her life.

On the worst

nights, Reina feels herself trapped as if on a magnetic plateau, with no fix on

the blackness. She confuses the stuffed bats with the birds, and the books with

the extinguished chandelier. She thinks often of her mother, hears her voice

again, feels the warm press of her breast against her cheek. Reina was six years

old when her mother died on the collecting expedition in the Zapata Swamp. How is

it possible that she has existed without her all these years?

Reina has one

more job in El Cobre before returning home to Havana for a two-week vacation. The

incessant rains have flooded the copper mine. The electric water pump dragged to

the site is almost prehistoric and has electrocuted two men since mid-November.

Now not even the most skillful electricians will go near it.

The same group

of men greets Reina in the hotel dining room, over a breakfast of rolls and fresh

papaya with lime. Reina looked them over carefully the day before but deemed

nobody worthy of her desire. They are all much too sure of their allure. This is

a problem in Cuba. Even the most gnarled, toothless, scabrous, sclerotic,

pigeon-toed, dyspeptic, pestilential men on the island believe themselves

irresistible to women. Reina has often pondered this incongruity. Too much mother

coddling is her theory. After the love and embraces of a Cuban mami, what man

wouldn't think he is the center of the universe?

Electricians, in Reina's

experience, are in a category apart. Adept with their hands and making sparks

fly, they often look upon women as something of another electrical challenge.

They are reliable but rarely inspired, which is partly why Reina enjoys reducing

them to helplessness. Gratitude, she thinks, is a refreshing quality in a man.

This is why Pepín Beltrán continues to be her ideal lover, despite the fact that

he's married and wears orthopedic shoes. As an official in the Ministry of

Agriculture, Pepín has nothing to do all day but rustle papers and daydream about

her. By the time he arrives at her room every evening, with a packet of black

market delicacies, he is nearly faint with anticipation. He follows Reina's body

like music.

Reina admits to a certain vanity. She basks in the admiration she

receives in her trade and in her bed, in the image of her image of herself. She

is fond of saying she has few specialties but prides herself on doing them

exceedingly well.

Nobody is allowed to carry Reina Agüero's

toolbox. She insists upon this, forcibly when necessary. It weighs close to

seventy pounds, but Reina carries it as if it contained no more than a pork

sandwich and a carton of milk. Most days she makes do with her tool belt, but the

pump at El Cobre's mine requires more electrical finesse. It is a forty-minute

walk uphill in the rain.

Others from the town join the electricians on their

trek to the mine. Word has spread of the lady electrician's ingenuity, and soon a

colorful procession of El Cobre's truants and elaborately underemployed citizens

follow Reina and her associates up the hill. Salvation or catastrophe, Reina

notices, is always guaranteed to draw a crowd. The rain comes down harder. The

citizens protect themselves with palm leaves and torn strips of cardboard and two

black umbrellas marked propriedad del estado.

Topsoil slides down the hill in

black rivulets. Snakes and mice and a profusion of underground creatures sweep

past them as they climb. The trees are crowded with fretful birds, frogs, and

lizards seeking refuge from the floods. One electrician, a flat-headed man named

Agosto Piedra, steps knee-deep into a pocket of mud and unleashes a string of

profanities so original it makes everyone laugh.

Reina is the first to reach

the mouth of the copper mine. It is an amphitheater of decay. In the seventeenth

century, slaves extracted enough ore from the mine to meet all of the country's

artillery needs. A hundred years later, they turned on their masters with muskets

and machetes and, eventually, through the intervention of the Bishop of Santiago

and La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre herself, were declared free citizens.

It will take something of a divine intervention to get the thick, foul-smelling

water out of the mine, Reina thinks. The pump, actually two pumps clumsily linked

by a series of exposed wires, is sunk in a foot of mud. Reina motions for her

attendant electricians to help her push the pump to drier land, but nobody moves

a muscle. Instead they look back at her, alternately embarrassed and defiant. The

machine has already claimed two lives. Revolutionary dedication goes only so far.

Reina puts down her toolbox. She circles the machine once, twice, three

times, before deciding on an angle. The mud sucks at her knee-high regulation

boots. She takes a deep breath, settles loosely on her haunches. Then, with the

speed and strength of a wrestler, she forces the power of her entire body into

her right shoulder. The machine moves two feet out of the mud. She repeats the

maneuver, so focused she appears in a trance, then again and again until the

whole contraption sits precariously on the lip of the mine. The crowd is silent.

The rain continues to roar down. Overhead, an aura vulture wheels through the


What happens next occurs so fast that nobody present can describe the

events accurately or in sequence. One moment, Reina is removing a side panel of

the water pump with her battery-operated screwdriver, and the next, thousands of

birds flee the trees at once, whirling madly in the rain. The ground begins to

shudder and fissure. Reina jumps on the pump as it begins to careen downhill on a

wave of mud belched forth from the mine. The pump crushes everything in its path,

leaving a flattened double wake of dirt and brambles that stops short before a

giant mahogany tree. Reina sees the tree coming and is almost relieved. It is a

healing tree, she remembers, its bark used to treat rheumatism, tetanus, and

pneumonia. Like the earth, it is violently trembling.

The impact rattles

Reina's spine, breaks her nose and both thumbs, and loosens a back molar. A

tangle of her hair is pulled out by the roots.

Reina is pinioned forty feet

high in the tree's uppermost branches. It is another kingdom entirely. Her pores

absorb the green saturation of leaves, the merciful scent of the earth slowly

ascending its limbs. Above her, the sky blossoms with gray velvet, with the

fading light of long-departed stars. Suddenly, Reina wants her daughter to be

with her, to share this air and the strange exhilaration of height. She would

say: "Dulcita, all the gifts of the world are here." But Reina knows too well the

uselessness of words, their power to divide and create loneliness.


body is sticky with blood and emulsions she does not recognize. Then nothing

matters except an unexpected blindness, her heart's rhythm, and an exquisite

sense of heat.

Product Details

Garcia, Cristina
Ballantine Books
Garcia, Cristina
Cristina Garc
a, Cristina
New York :
Family saga
Domestic fiction
Cuban Americans
Cuban American families
Cuban Americans -- Florida -- Miami -- Fiction.
Cuba Fiction.
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Ballantine Reader's Circle
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
8 x 5.1 x 0.71 in 0.64 lb

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The Aguero Sisters (Ballantine Reader's Circle) Used Trade Paper
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Product details 336 pages Ballantine Books - English 9780345406514 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by , Reina and Constancia Agüero are Cuban sisters who have been estranged for thirty years. Reina--tall, darkly beautiful, and magnetically sexual--still lives in her homeland. Once a devoted daughter of la revolución, she now basks in the glow of her many admiring suitors, believing only in what she can grasp with her five senses. The pale and very petite Constancia lives in the United States, a beauty expert who sees miracles and portents wherever she looks. After she and her husband retire to Miami, she becomes haunted by the memory of her parents and the unexplained death of her beloved mother so long ago.

Told in the stirring voices of their parents, their daughters, and themselves, The Agüero Sisters tells a mesmerizing story about the power of myth to mask, transform, and finally, reveal the truth--as two women move toward an uncertain, long awaited reunion.

"Synopsis" by , The acclaimed new novel by the author of "Dreaming in Cuban". Told in the stirring voices of their parents, their daughters, and themselves, "The Aguero Sisters" weaves a mesmerizing story about the power of myth to unmask, transform, and finally reveal the truth--as two women move toward an uncertain, long-awaited reunion.
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