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CHUTE

Swoosh. Blank. Lights flickering. An awkward weightlessness. Regaining focus, I ran a check. Chest, torso, arms and legs felt fine. Feet were still off ground. Boot laces were loose. I tilted my head to loosen the strap of the helmet. The left side of my neck felt sore and was swelling up fast. I pulled at the lines. They were caught on the highest branches. “Shit! Shit Shit!”

It took them half an hour to find me and another half to get me down. Victor had to go back to the air base for a bigger ladder. Captain Lima arrived in a jeep, marching towards me in strides too long for his short legs.

“I cannot believe it!” He spat, one fist in the air, “another one?” “Sorry, sir, the wind’s too strong.” “Shut up! The wind! Psst! Let me see that!” Captain Lima snatched the D-6’s nylon canopy from my hands, “it’s tattered! How do you get them all fucking tattered?”

“Only twice, sir, and by coincidence...” “Shut up, Lugo! I wasn’t asking!” He tossed the parachute on the ground and walked off cursing. Victor signalled me to pick it up, and I bundled it over my shoulder. “Be at my office in twenty minutes, Lugo!” shouted Captain Lima before clambering on his jeep and speeding back to base.

***

“Victor tells me you’ve jumped with a D-6 the three times?” “Yes, sir.” “And the wind’s been strong,” Captain Lima added with a slight roll of his eyes. “Yes, sir, it has.” He paced the short distance between the door and a rickety pine desk. His boots thumped on the tiles. He ordered me to sit and looked down on me, grinning. An iron-willed man with a strict sense of discipline he sought to instil in others, Captain Lima had been in Angola in the late 70s, and a decade later on the eve of Cuito Carnavale. He had medals to show for it, Victor said. The major general of the Revolutionary Armed Forces’ Central Army had pinned them onto Lima’s chest himself.

The captain leaned over the table, an inch from my face.

“Tell me something, Lugo. Could you find a way not to break any more of my chutes if I give you one with steering toggles?”

“It’ll make a difference, sir, what with my weight and all...”

“Your weight and all?” he laughed, “look around! We’re all skinny here, Lugo! But we don’t go telling our superiors that the wind’s taken us! The fuck with the wind! If you have to pull down hard on the lines to steer, you pull down hard on the lines. You hear me?”

“Yes, sir...”

“You muscle up and you pull down hard on them. Two, twenty, two hundred times. Until the chute goes where you need it to. You copy me, Lugo?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I should leave you to deal with the D-6 a little longer,” he breathed in heavily, “but I am in a good mood. Tell you what... if you bring me the PD-47 in one piece the next time you jump, I’ll let you keep it.”

“A PD-47!” I wanted to smile, but he was glaring at me. “Don’t think you’re off the hook, Lugo! I’ll save you a D6 for your first competition. I wouldn’t drop the weight lifting if I were you.”

***

On the morning of jump four, I checked my kit a dozen times. We stood outside the hangar at seven on the dot. Victor and Lidia were front of line. He was calm and collected; she, twitching with excitement. Victor had done his three years of military service with the club and had decided to stay after that. He had over a thousand dives. His life revolved around skydiving. Lidia, Victor’s girlfriend, was newer to the club and already nearing 200 jumps. They were tough, sharp performers, but kind to everyone and openly affectionate towards each other. They added much needed charm to our club.

Captain Lima arrived within the minute. “You ready, Lugo?” he patted me on the back so hard I staggered, almost losing balance. We clambered onto the Mi-8 helicopter and took our places on the oor. Captain Lima went in last. Past the 1,000-feet mark, he opened the door and stood looking out. At his command, Victor and Lidia ran a nal visual on our backpacks, Z-5 reserves at the front, our KAP-3s. Soon after, everyone was heading out of the door.

I was last in line to jump. Captain Lima stood by, amused. When I was in position, he shouted, “for good luck!” and gave me a mighty kick on the bottom. Pain sprang up my behind like electric current. I tumbled forward at four thousand feet, moisture turning to ice in my eyes and nose. Seconds later, the suspension lines streamed out of my backpack, catching the left side of my neck. “Argh, not again!”

The canopy opened in full above. I could see and breathe again. The land ahead was treeless and perfectly calm, I descended relatively slow, and had a clear view of the landing target. Pulling both toggles down simultaneously for a hard break, I then began to release them slowly and the chute continued to lose altitude. It felt like an easy thing, steering, and quite satisfying. I tugged at the right toggle softly for a slow turn and pulled it back in when in direct line with the target. A couple of minutes later, I was landing my right foot bang in the middle of it.

“You got lucky!” Captain Lima smirked. He said the same after my next four jumps. In spite of the persistently bruised neck, I was on target every one of them.

***

The first competition was two days away. I was excited. Given my landing accuracy to date, I had some prospect of winning among the new recruits. The day before, Captain Lima threw a D-6 at my feet.

“You thought I’d forget?” he laughed. I assembled the chute grudgingly.
“That won’t do.” Lidia shook her head, inspecting it. She called out to Victor. He made me go back six steps.

“I had my fair share of D-6s back in the day,” Victor told me. “Did you ever land on target?” I asked. “These chutes aren’t for that. They are for military troops to disembark. They are heavier than sport chutes, but much safer.” “How do you steer one without toggles?” “Pulling down on the lines. That’s all there is to it. But if you pull the right ones, you don’t need as much strength.”
“What do you mean?”
“The toggles are attached to the brake lines, which are connected to the rear of the chute,” Victor explained, “without toggles, you’d have to pull at these lines here and here,” he pointed at them, “if you want to steer the chute at all.”

I was grateful for the tip. Victor patted me on the shoulder, “good luck!”

***

For the competition, we took an airplane instead of the Mi-8 helicopter. The AN-2 was a new experience. The door was wider. We kept losing altitude. Deployment took a while. It gave you time to think. It’s not good to think much before throwing yourself out of a plane. Captain Lima opened the door over the 1,000 feet mark and, as usual, stood by looking out. As I got set, he smacked the side of my helmet pretty hard and shouted, “I’ll be right behind with the big ladder!”

I jumped out in anger. The icy wind slapped my face. It’s not something you get used to. The pilot chute held me upright. Dangling like a puppet, I fell fast. The suspension lines swished up, past the side of my head seconds later, missing my neck. That I claimed as my first victory.

When the round canopy of the D-6 was fully opened, I located the landing area. My heart was thumping so hard. I pulled down at the brake lines Victor had identi ed, and which I’d marked with a red pen. Nothing happened. The suspension lines took all the weight along with the canopy. They were very tense. I pulled them down as hard as I could for a good while. The target was ahead, if a little to the right. I was decelerating, although very slowly. The wind was blowing in the right direction. I remembered the ladder joke and gave it one long pull.

I landed in a trench a hundred meters off target, panting with relief. That’d do me. The sky was blue and wide and all above. I’d pulled it. I’d fucking done it. I sat down and laughed picturing Captain Lima’s face, when the ground suddenly turned. It slipped under me too fast for eyes to follow. I was being pulled from behind at tremendous speed. My helmet came off; I saw it out of the corner of my eye, rolling over grass and tarmac. My ears rang. Pins and needles engulfed my head, and everything turned cold; lighter and softer around the edges. I let go. There was no point fighting it.

***

Swoosh. Blank. Lights flickering. I laid on a bed. Not my bed. Where was I? Still at the club; the nursing room. Once fully awake, I ran a check. My clothes were all tattered. I had a splitting headache. My upper arms and legs were bandaged. They stung like hell. “Shit! Shit! Shit!” A nurse came in and went. She returned with Captain Lima, who marched in as if ready to escort me to a court-martial.

“What a show you’ve given us, Lugo! What a fucking show!” he sneered. “Sir?” I asked confused, aching badly.

“A third chute in the bin ‘cause of you,” he told me, “what a waste!” I fought back, “I landed near the target, sir!” “Landed? You fucking kidding me? That current dragged you like a paper plane!”

Captain Lima was enjoying himself. “How hard is it to turn and shut down a chute when you touch ground, Lugo? Or you’ve forgotten basics?”

“But I didn’t feel any...” “Shut up, Lugo! All you get to say here is yes sir!” his nostrils aring up. “Yes, sir,” my voice faltered, tears lled my eyes. I looked down avoiding his gaze.

“You look like shit by the way,” he spat. “get some rest. We’ll nish this later.” He turned on his heels and left. The nurse walked in right after. She was as warm as an ice pack. She fed me pill after pill without making eye contact. I wiped the tears off my face, gave in to sleep. When I woke up, it was dark. A jeep came and took me home.

***

“Where have you been? You look a mess!” Aunt Julia glared at me, and called out to Grandma, “María, she’s back!”

The entire family had been summoned to my grandparents’, I could only presume due to my disappearance; dad, uncles, aunts, great aunts, even my stepmother. Grandpa laid on the bed with a hand to his chest. They all sat around him.

“Selfish girl!” Great-aunt Matilda’s cry cut through the air as I walked in. She wiped her eyes and nose with a worn-out embroidered handkerchief.

“You’ve scared my brother to death!” her twin sister America reproached me, snatching the handkerchief from Matilda and tucking it between her breasts.

Grandma sprang forward but held back, noticing the state of my clothes, “Are these burns?” she felt the bandages. “Explain yourself!” Dad demanded, not looking at me. I told them everything; held my head high, pretended nothing hurt. “Grandpa went to find you at school when you didn’t come home for lunch,”

Grandma said, her lips quivering, her shaky hands unfolding the bandage around my right arm, “Marianita, mija, can you imagine what it was like for him to be told you’d skipped class and gone skydiving! We had the fright of our lives!”

“How could you, behind our backs?” Uncle Jorge yelled. He was my mum’s youngest brother, in town for his yearly, week-long visit. “You are still underage, aren’t you?”

“You’ll kill your grandpa one of these days!” cried Great-aunt America, and the handkerchief came out of her cleavage again. It brushed against the large golden cross resting on it and landed on her drippy nose. My great aunt blew her nose fiercely, as if wanting to purge some evil off her.

“God forbids!” Matilda crossed herself. She turned to me pointing a finger, “you should be ashamed of yourself, young girl!”

“Not fair!” I spat back. “I didn’t want to hurt grandpa! I like this club! What’s wrong with that? It’s a sport!”

“Jumping off a plane? A sport? Really?” Dad burst out. “Who gave you permission to join? Because I didn’t! I want the name and number of the person in charge. Now!”

***

Dad dialled from the kitchen. Seeing that everyone was busy over grandpa, I picked up the handset and hid itunder my hair.

“This is Captain Lima.”
“I’m Tomás Lugo, Mariana’s father. Can I talk to whoever is in charge of the skydiving club?”
“I am.” “Well, captain, how is it that you allow a minor to join your club?” “The club is for high school students.

They are all minors. We’ve got consent forms from the parents.”
“Consent forms?” “That’s right.” “Well, I didn’t consent to anything! Mariana’s mother is not even in the country.

Mariana’s under the care of her grandparents and they didn’t sign anything either! I’ll be taking this to the Party, let me tell you!” my father threatened.

Everyone looked sternly on except Grandma, who examined me holding back sobs, and Grandpa who had been given a sleeping pill and was snoring away.

“See if I care!” Captain Lima said nonchalantly. “I’m military. I follow procedure to the core.” I pictured his grinning face at the other end of the receiver. There was a brief silence, a rustle of papers, “here it is,” he added, “the consent form signed by you. Lugo gave it to me herself.”

“I did not sign that!” Dad shouted into the receiver. “In that case,” Captain Lima replied, “she’s got more balls than I thought!” “What?” Dad was confused. “Look, I’ve got what fourteen, fifteen rookies here... let me tell you, your daughter is one of the few worth my time. She’s done five jumps on target. She even landed a D6 near one! Give her some credit...”

Dad slammed the phone down in the kitchen. But I’d heard all I needed to hear. I stayed housebound for a month after that; no TV was allowed, or friends visiting. The great aunts dropped by each Sunday after mass and relished admonishing me. It made them madder that I didn’t apologise. But I wasn’t sorry. I wasn’t angry either. I was some tough shit. I could go places. The thought kept me beaming for weeks.

 
 

 
 

Mariley Reinoso Olivera is Cuban writer and musician currently based in Newcastle, England. She has worked as a radio DJ and theatre promoter in Havana and recently gained a Masters Degree in Creative Writing from Northumbria University. She co-founded Northern Rising: A North East Poetry Social and currently works as the Communications Manager for Moving Parts: Newcastle Puppetry Festival.