Miguel Ángel was a bull-jawed man, bristly about the cheeks, the hair pricking from his closely-cut head like strewn chaff. In Cuba they used to call him El Gallego Granitico, not only because his hair was straw-colored and as straight as a gallego’s—a fact that his mama was always proud of, considering this to be a great and determining attribute, pointing it out to neighbors, to family, to the parish priest, always making him want to slouch off moodily and shove off to sea—; very much like his papa, a taciturn fisherman and a true man of the coast, who slipped in and out of their sun-lit bohio like a recurring figure in a slideshow, dimmed in memory and as rough and watery as the seas in which he’d spent the greater portion of his unhappy life—but also because of the roughness of his palms. Los manos de un varón, his family would marvel. Como un jíbarito, they would joke. Exactamente como su papá, they would finally relent.

Even as a small child, his palms were rudely crosshatched, chapped, and freakishly large for someone his age.

He’d study his boyish face in his father’s shaving glass, the bones seeming too delicate, the hair too fine, and he’d examine his hands, wondering at these odd extensions of himself that seemed to grow faster, and stronger, than any other part on his body. The fingers were thick and brutish, strangely-burled, knuckles cresting like anthills on blasted terrain. It was as if he’d long-grasped the abrasive handles of machetes as they swept through cane stalks, or the iron bar of a walk-behind plow scything through unkempt fields: they were hands that were labor-ready.

It got so he worried that they would grow larger than his head, impeding a normal life of chasing girls and playing baseball. His mother would have to put up impenetrable curtains and post his brothers outside the door to keep away curiosity seekers who wanted to catch a glimpse of the family freak. His stoic father would break into tears at the sight of him, his mother would spend half of her waking life kneeling before church candles, his grandmother would mark him as a scourge upon the land, his brothers would carefully skirt his room (where he’d crouch miserably in a cobwebbed corner, hiding his swaddled hands) with a mixture of fear and awe; foredoomed to walk the night beneath a pregnant yellow moon, unleashing his wailful woe, dragging hands carving deep grooves into the earth.

Numerous solutions to alleviate this problem crossed his mind, neither of which worked to his satisfaction, some which ended disastrously. Hoping to thwart the growth of his hands, he slid burning needles into his palm and drew the points out wincingly slow, glogs of blood erupting to the surface, but this only led his Tia Ana to believe that he’d become the benevolent recipient of stigmata, and for a period of three days she followed him through ripe jungles and across barren fields, over trickling streams and through meandering pastures, swatting him with hemp rope and muttering strings of prayers, hoping that he’d reveal to her a favorable vision of the future. Finally, unable to shake off this nuisance, even after complaining to his mother and brothers, who found his predicament hilarious (knowing that Tia Ana was ultimately harmless), he commanded her to her knees as if he were indeed a saintly figure deserving of tribute, and as she looked up at him with brimming eyes, hands clasped into a prayerful bouquet, he painted for her a beautiful portrait of her future life—complete with a handsome hacendero for a husband, untold hectares of land in her possession, and a generous flourishing of loving children. This appeased the only sane part of her that wanted above all else to be held, to be kissed, to be loved, and she shot to her feet and squeezed his temples with the flats of her hands and kissed him full upon the lips—leaving him to stand dazedly as she bolted across the field, whooping with joy. (Sadly, Tia Ana’s favorable future would never be realized, for she was sent to the manicomio a few weeks later when she was found strutting about the town square on all fours, like a mare viciously awaiting her stallion, daring all the men who passed to mount her as they pleased).

As if taking poor Tia Ana’s cue, he prayed six times a day, long droll prayers of his own devising, evoking saints and elephants and striped tigers (confusing these with the archetypes of luck); slept with his hands beneath his pillow because his brothers had informed him with the utmost seriousness that the hand fairies would appear to whittle away the excess flesh; immersed his hands in warm water cured with salt; and even considered handing over his meager savings to a santero in order to be cured of his deformity—though he was too frightened of those back-alley men whose eyes were full of smoke and from whose dens, the doors always being chocked-open, emanated the stench of blood and something else far more repellent that he could never name, a smell not so much filth as beyond decay.

But soon enough he grew to accept his hands, for they never let him down when it came time to work. An anti-shirker at heart, he was the first of his four brothers, even though he was the youngest, to jump at the appointed tasks their mysterious father had left for them. He mended fishnets, his hands strongly paying out the nylon ropes and expertly tying the strands; rebuilt the stockfence that enclosed their few clucking chickens and moody pigs; dug out a well using a rudimentary shovel that he’d fashioned himself out of a wedge of steel and a hardwood stave he’d stripped from a barrel, making a useful tool out of what his brothers casually dismissed as a mamotreto; and slapped down paint without seams or wrinkles, seemingly careless, his eyes dreamy with thought. He had his father’s facility with skilled labor, he was a natural with a hammer and saw, but the one virtue he did not possess was the ability to control his emotions. Like his mother’s father, Dominguez Lopez Abrogado, a reckless gambler who was as whimsical as the Wild West, Miguel Ángel would snap at the first perceived insult and hurl an abusive string of invective so profane that if a veata were in the vicinity she would be sure to cross herself and fork her fingers to ward off the devil’s new disciple. He would fight with anyone who wished to slight him. The size of his opponent was irrelevant, for he would do his best to flatten him out. Once, with a hooking punch, he broke three of Lupo Martinez’s ribs in front of his entire class. When the tall boy hit the dust, he spit out a parabola of blood. Miguel Ángel was sent home for three weeks after that incident, and he was forced to write a written apology to the boy and his family for any suffering he might have caused them, and even though he wrote a letter that seemed, on the face of it, heartfelt, he wasn’t contrite in the least, and felt that the boy got what he deserved. After all, Lupo had said that he pitched like a girl.

All of this battling was detrimental, because Miguel Ángel would often come home with both eyes blackened and puffed, his fists swollen, stomach muscles sorely tested, and instead of putting in a day’s or evening’s work for the household, he’d have to lie down and recover, with his mother spooning him his dinner and gently scrubbing his wounds. This made his father furious. Though Miguel Ángel had never before directly received his father’s approval (or disapproval for that matter), so he had no real way of knowing. All that changed once Miguel Ángel decided to become the schoolyard macho. At first his father talked to his mother, who then gently related to Miguel Ángel the wisdom inherent in controlling his emotions. When that didn’t work, his father sent his brothers as messengers, and they explained the wisdom of controlling his emotions in less subtle terms: their father would beat his ass blue. And when that didn’t work, his father did what he thought was best for all: he turned Miguel Ángel out of the house for good. No explanations, no sit-downs with the family or the parish priest. It was out the door for Miguel Ángel, two crosses to the jaw and a swift boot in the ass before the bolt shot home, the windows latched, and his father was to be seen no more. Miguel Ángel heard his mother’s howls, his brothers screaming for mercy, and their father, as silent as ever, kept them all out of sight. Fourteen years old and he walked the long road in the cool of the morning, not knowing where he was headed, only that he was alone, with his anger and his freakish hands, and he struck out with no plan in mind, tears cutting tracks across his dusty face. By wits and fortune, he had survived, made his way, became a man; on his own terms, as he would always have it; and he never saw his family again, though he thought of them often, especially his father, whose own chilly reserve and lack of expression fed the desire within him to be beyond expressive, to erect imperishable monuments of living language that could carve through the stone of the mind and the canyons of the heart, but because of the long hours of more toil than study, being no more than a working man’s son after all, and forced to fend for himself at that, it was a brutalizing task to improve his mind. His hands were of far more value, in terms of his survival, than his intellect could ever be. So he labored all over the island, until the moment came when he had his chance to leave his homeland for good, and he took it without a moment’s thought. But even though he resolved to always face forward, he never could stop looking back.

Oh how he wanted to put behind him the days and nights of hacking cane, his flesh cooked from the mercilessly beating sun! and all the work-weary hours spent in a nickel-concentrate plant! and those horrible mornings he’d spent improvising meals in a hotel kitchen for boorish European tourists! and the days just before he’d decided he’d had enough of Castro and all of his fucking obujos watching every single move he made, crouched over the clattering of the santero’s bones, hoping for a lifetime of luck! Because he wasn’t satisfied with merely winnowing through life and opting for safer currents (keep a low profile not meant to be his mantra), Miguel Ángel longed for grandiosity and magniloquence. He longed for freedom. He longed to be seen as more than the sum of his parts. And, a man of griefs and fits, he longed to be friends with himself.

Edwin Rivera is a writer, an instructor at SVA, and editor of The Match Factory.