The photographs of the hatted children came to me from Barcelona, but the main source of my tale of the Vidaud Caignet siblings was Nunú’s notebook, prodigiously composed in Miami when she was in her nineties. It features a family tree in which the two brothers are named José Alberto and Luis Severo, and they are both older than Juana Amelia. Most interesting, it mentions that Alberto “had” La Reunión, while Severo had La Carlota and, later, La Luisa… What, exactly, did Nunú mean by “tenía”? Did La Reunión, the old coffee and cacao farm, so rich in other botanical specimens too, so elusive and mysterious, really belong to my second great-grandfather, after all, or did he “have” it in some other way? I expect to return to La Reunión — in writing, if not in real life.
But let it not be said that we cannot see the forest for the family tree. It was simply by looking at the picture of the little boy, possibly Severo, in the somewhat conical, possibly faux-Ottoman, hat, that I wrote this:
“And then there is this. The Vidauds and the Caignets were French, after all, so I suppose there must have been some Orientalist blood in their bluish veins. This vaguely Ottoman hat, if that’s indeed what it is, must have been the playful sartorial expression of some Eastern dream, placed on a boy’s head as he held some kind of magic flask in his hand. Perhaps we can imagine this is the older brother, Alberto, but most likely this is also Severo, sporting longer and wavier hair. Perhaps we can imagine how that exotic object awakened in the boy what appears to be his passion for luxury and voluptuousness, if not calm.”
And then, drawing on Nunú’s journal, I wrote this:
“A prodigal son of sorts, he always returned to Cuba and, what’s more, died a hero’s death. There’s a measure of irony in his exit from this world. Severo, the transatlantic voyager, died on the short trip from Santiago de Cuba to Guantánamo as the ship he sailed on hit a rock and sank not far from the shore. A good swimmer, he tried to rescue a passenger gasping for air near him, but the effort overwhelmed him and both men drowned. I’m moved by Nunú’s succinct account of her uncle’s passing, inscribed in careful penmanship: ‘Mi tío era un buen nadador, pero vio uno que se estaba ahogando. Lo quiso salvar. No pudo. Se ahogaron los dos.’ Severo must have been wearing a hat that day as he sailed under the bright Caribbean sun. Perhaps it was a Panama hat, and it floated on the water for a period of time before sinking on the ocean bed; perhaps it was a gray day and Severo wasn’t really wearing a hat at all. Then again, wearing a hat wasn’t just about seeking protection from the sun.”
And then I had to delete this last paragraph. I reread the notebook. As it turns out, I had misread the name of the subject of this tragic episode. For some inexplicable reason, I saw “Severo” where Nunú had in fact written “Julio.” I was devastated. My misreading was my undoing. My tale of Severo suddenly lost its proper denouement. My second great-uncle’s real passing could not have matched the perfect drama of his apocryphal death by drowning not far from the rocky shores of Oriente.
More on Julio, the drowned man, known in Vallantin Dulac’s account as Émile Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, later.
One of my dearest friends, a man who calls himself Gregorio, a Cuban-born reader and writer who now lives near Venice, follows my blog and tells me I should perhaps write — dare I say it? — a novel. Viewed from the Veneto, my Vidauds, he says, are a Caribbean clan far finer than those tacky Buendías. I’m tempted. A dreamer and a lover, Severo, like Juan Dahlmann, deserves a romantic death. Indeed, if I wrote undisguised fiction, I could recompose Severo’s death in whatever manner struck my fancy. But would that name, Luis Severo Vidaud Caignet or Sévère Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, still stand for our family ghost, the residue of a man who truly loved and lived, or would he, or it, be metamorphosed into a mere paper creature, a fabricated thing?