It is late at night, but the street is unnaturally aglow, like a baseball game under the lights. For their 11 o'clock feeds, the television stations demand incandescence. In the yard of a house across the street, a rooster greets the synthetic dawn with an uncertain cock-a-doodle. These weeks have been hell on him.

These weeks have been hell on everyone. On this day in the last week of March, talks have broken down. The tension roils. Feds could arrive within 24 hours to take the boy back to his father, and some people here have said, quite seriously, that they will die before they let that happen.

A whoop from the crowd. The crowd is granted at least one appearance a night, and here it comes. The door of the little house opens and the boy emerges. He is in a yellow T-shirt, riding the shoulders of a family friend. Elian Gonzalez looks sleepy. It's nearly 11, and he is 6.

A hundred people start chanting. "Eh-lee-AN! Eh-lee-AN!"

There is another boy--Elian's cousin--on another man's shoulders, but Elian may as well be alone. The most famous kindergartner in America smiles and pumps his hands in the air, palms out, fingers limply curled, as he makes a triumphant bouncing promenade around the small front yard. He is awake now.

"Eh-lee-AN! Eh-lee-AN!"

This is a very little boy--small for 6--all knees and elbows and ears, with shiny black hair cropped so close it looks painted on. Just at this moment, in this floppy ride, bony arms extended, he more than anything resembles Pinocchio.

"Eh-lee-AN! Eh-lee-AN!"

He's got a button nose. He is no liar, this kid. He's too young and too scared to be a liar. When he asserts that his mom is alive, that she did not slip into the waves and gurgle to death before his eyes, that she must have made it to shore but has lost her memory and is trying to find him, that is not a lie. That is something else.

"Eh-lee-AN! Eh-lee-AN!"

The crowd is near a frenzy. The man beneath Elian trots him out to the front of the yard, where a Cuban flag and an American flag, each 10 feet high, whip friskily in the wind. It is to the American flag that Elian is carried. He lets it gently spank his face. The crowd erupts.

"Eh-lee-AN! Eh-lee-AN!"

That is the footage that will make this night's 11 o'clock news. On most stations it ends with Elian still in the front yard, caressing the Stars and Stripes.

But something happens after that. Elian is carried back to the house and up the steps to the open door. Just before he is to enter, he reaches out and grabs a metal strut holding up an aluminum awning. This yanks him half off the shoulders of the man who is carrying him.

He doesn't want to go in. He holds on for another 20 seconds, absorbing the waves of idolatry, half-drowning in it.

"Eh-lee-AN! Eh-lee-AN!"

Overhead, heard but unseen above the glare, TV helicopters hover. On the street, cops pace, their shadows elongated in the bright light of night.

The surreal sodium-vapor glow seems to seek out everything yellow, making it throb: Elian's shirt, a discarded lemon, the occasional dangling strip of police tape for crowd control.

You realize what this feels like. The shadows, the cops, the tape, the lights, the choppers, the menace. It doesn't feel like a ballgame. It feels like a crime scene.

Versions and Virgins

A mother, her boyfriend and her little boy clamber into a rickety 17-foot boat with 11 other people and, like tens of thousands of Cubans seeking to escape the privation and repression of the Castro regime, try to make it to the United States. Of the three, only the boy survives, discovered by fishermen on Thanksgiving, clinging to an inner tube three miles off the coast of Fort Lauderdale.

To much of America, what follows in the weeks and months afterward is nothing short of lunacy.

In Havana, the little boy's grade school desk is turned into a national shrine. In Miami, he is proclaimed a baby Jesus. Then comes the trip to Disney World. The indignant visit by the grandmothers. A car chase to the airport. Charges from Miami that grandma is a pervert. Charges from Havana that Great-Uncle Lazaro is a pervert. Charges and countercharges of brainwashing. Bomb squads detonating suspicious packages that turn out to be bars of soap. A human chain-link fence around the boy's house. Multiple appearances of the Virgin Mary.

Lunacy.

It does not take an expert in geopolitics to understand that the saga of Elian Gonzalez, now in its fifth month, is not merely about the fate of a little boy whose mother drowned and whose father wants him back.

That would be clean, and easy.

This is not easy. Or clean.

The Gatekeeper

"Hi," says Armando Gutierrez.

"Hi," you say, but he is past you, which is no mean feat because the corridor is narrow and Gutierrez is not.

He's headed for his car. You follow. This is the guy with access to The Kid.

These days, it seems, Armando Gutierrez, 50--professional advertising man, real estate agent, auctioneer, pioneer online Latin grocer, pit bull campaign manager, political kingmaker--pretty much runs things in Cuban Miami. Two judges involved in the Elian Gonzalez case had to disclose political links to Gutierrez; one recused himself because of it.

Now Gutierrez is punching the buttons on his car radio, and suddenly someone is yakking in Spanish. It's all Elian. These are the opening minutes of what will be a three-day fund-raiser for the boy's legal expenses. Gutierrez organized it. Five minutes later, he arrives at a conference room filled with 15 phones. At each phone a person sits, taking pledges. The instant a phone is cradled, it rings again. Hundreds of dollars are being raised each minute.

Gutierrez veers right, into the office of Radio Mambi, Miami's 50,000-watt Spanish-language AM station. People are streaming in, delivering contributions in person. Gutierrez riffles through about two dozen checks that have arrived in the last two hours. Here is one for $1,000. It is from Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas.

Everything is going splendidly, Gutierrez pronounces over his shoulder, striding down the block. On one hip bounces a wad of keys; on the other flaps a cell phone that tweets nearly every minute. "Dime" is how he answers, a no-nonsense command: Talk to me. Gutierrez has logged 43,000 minutes on this phone since the madness began. This call is about signing Elian up for T-ball.

The day after the boy was found, Gutierrez was with one of his clients, a guy running for the state Senate. They went to the family's house and introduced themselves, a prudent campaign move. But Gutierrez says he quickly realized this issue was too serious to exploit for political purposes.

Since then, he has become the official family spokesman, appearing before cameras worldwide as often as five times a day, taking complete charge of public access to the boy. Though he has let members of Congress visit ("They can help, maybe"), Gutierrez says he has kept virtually all local politicians away from the house. Even his own clients. "Oh, are they pissed," he chortles.

No one is going to benefit politically from this child's tragedy, he asserts. He, Armando Gutierrez, is going to see to that personally.

An Affectionate Child

The home of Lazaro Gonzalez, Elian's great-uncle, is modest even for this blue-collar neighborhood of car dealerships, appliance repair shops and inexpensive single-family houses. 2319 NW Second St. is beige stucco, one story, with a few beleaguered window-unit air conditioners groaning against the heat. Its postage-stamp back yard contains the most famous plastic slide in America, and a wooden swing set labeled "El Parque de Elian." The fence is cinched by a thick chain and padlock to keep gawkers out. Icicle Christmas lights hang forlornly above the front door. This is a home that stopped functioning normally last Thanksgiving.

Night is falling. In the front yard, in a Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt, Elian scampers with his great-uncle Lazaro, 49, his grandfather's brother.

The media have not treated Elian's Miami family particularly well, and among themselves, reporters sometimes laugh at them. Lazaro Gonzalez, a mechanic for a local Ford dealership, can seem almost a caricature of the macho Cuban male: Gruff and laconic, he grunts responses only in Spanish, shows little emotion, and smokes cigarettes like a nervous gunsel at a Mafia wedding--furtively, sucking hard, fingertips to mouth. When he dresses up, as for court appearances, he favors shiny black shirts and shiny purple ties.

But it is for his daughter Marisleysis, 21, the person with whom little Elian bunks and to whom he clearly has bonded, that the media privately reserve their greatest contempt. They call her "the actress," or worse. Marisleysis often seems cold and haughty, and overly made up, and flagrantly fingernailed, and she can sometimes be seen laughing with friends moments before turning to the cameras and crying over Elian. Few who have seen them with Elian, however, question that Marisleysis and her father love this little boy.

It is true that he has gained them status--they are cheered in the streets of Cuban Miami--but it is also true that this has come at a cost. At least three times in the last few months (and as late as last Tuesday), Marisleysis was rushed to the hospital with symptoms of nervous exhaustion.

Lazaro Gonzalez has had his two DUI convictions exposed on the national news, and endured Castro's apparently baseless charge that before he immigrated to the United States in 1983, he had been caught molesting children while working as a gym teacher. Gonzalez reacted with dignity, ridiculing Castro and releasing a 1983 Cuban document certifying he'd never been convicted of a crime.

At the end of the street, the demonstrators are beginning their chanting. There is a peculiar cadence to Latin American chants, foreign to the American ear: It is two single beats followed by a rhyming triple.

Elian! Amigo! Ex exilio esta contigo!

Elian, my friend. The exiles are with you.

Fidel! Loco! Te queda poco!

Fidel. Crazy. You won't last long.

In the front yard, Elian plays placidly at Lazaro's feet, seemingly oblivious to the mayhem.

Exiles? Fidel? Does this racket bother Elian, Lazaro is asked.

"He likes it," Lazaro says. "He knows they are supporting him."

Some neighbors wander by. Elian acknowledges them with smiles. Everyone who has been in the company of the boy has noticed this: how immediately affectionate he is with strangers, how effortlessly he makes them his friends. Armando Gutierrez, for one, sees this as evidence of how happy and well adjusted he is here.

This may be, but others see something different. Monsignor Bryan Walsh headed Operation Pedro Pan, which in the early 1960s brought 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children to the United States. A genial Irish American who is a hero to Miami's Cuban community, Walsh has spent a lifetime in child welfare. Because his words carry great weight, he chooses them carefully. He will not discuss his feelings about whether Elian Gonzalez should be returned to Cuba, but he says he worries when he hears how indiscriminately affectionate the boy is.

"This is evidence of an emotionally disturbed child. When you go to the Catholic home and see children who are troubled . . . they love to come up to you and hug you. A normal child that age is shy. He does not do that with strangers."

At Elian's house, a neighbor approaches and shyly asks Lazaro if she can talk to the boy and give him her blessing.

Ivon Lopez is 36. She has met Elian only once before, at a distance. Lazaro hoists Elian up, above the fence. The little boy reaches both arms out, grabs Lopez around the neck and hugs her, planting a long and tender kiss on her cheek.

The Basics

With emotion stripped away, the dispute here seems pretty clear. The United States government contends that Elian Gonzalez's father, legally and morally, has the right to custody of his son and that the United States has an obligation, legally and morally, to return him to Cuba if the father so wishes; that to do otherwise is tantamount to one country kidnapping a child because it does not approve of another country's political ideology.

Who could disagree with this assessment?

Cuban Americans in Miami contend that their homeland is a dungeon, a country in the thrall of a desperate, failed despot, a nation that is economically impoverished and spiritually crushed, and that returning Elian Gonzalez there after his mother sacrificed her life to bring him to freedom is simply unconscionable.

Who could disagree with this assessment?

It is not surprising that the case of Elian Gonzalez has created a standoff. If the ferocity of that standoff has surprised people, they have never lived in Miami.

Plumbing the Depths

It is mid-afternoon and Armando Gutierrez is holding court over a cortadito coffee at one of the dozens of outdoor coffee shops sprinkled along the streets of Cuban Miami. Every minute or so, someone drops by to wish Gutierrez well in his crusade for Elian. Here comes a trim man in his seventies carrying an old magazine--a very old magazine--with a picture of him when he was an official in the regime of Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban dictator whom Castro overthrew in 1959. He proudly gives it to Gutierrez. Batista was a corrupt thug; he persecuted his political enemies; his goons used torture. But in Cuban Miami, alliance with Cuba's last capitalist regime is no cause for shame.

Another older man greets him. Curiously, he seems to be making a big deal of the fact that he is a fontanero. A plumber.

Laughing, Gutierrez explains: This is not just any plumber. He is The Plumber. This is Eugenio Martinez, one of the four Cubans who tried to bug the Watergate complex for Richard Nixon.

Miami is not just any city. It can seem at times like a modern-day Casablanca, a colorful demimonde with shadowy characters, a place of boiling political passions, roiling conspiracies, strange alliances. Modern Miami was built by first-generation Cuban exiles: the island's best and the brightest who were forced to flee for their lives after Fidel Castro took over, seizing personal possessions, nationalizing private industry, jailing some opponents and executing others. Some Cubans came here with money, but most did not. In Miami they opened bodegas, mowed lawns, built businesses from scratch. And while they are fiercely and justifiably proud of their accomplishments here, they remain, in their own minds, Cubans in exile.

Their self-image is freighted by bitterness at a double betrayal, first by Castro and then by John F. Kennedy's clay-footed double-cross at the Bay of Pigs, when he reneged on promised air support for the failed invasion. They are, in their own estimation, largely victims, each with a personal history of displacement and suffering. Their own families were torn asunder.

The leaders of Cuban Miami rose to power and held it by marshaling the passion of a single political ideology: Communism is evil; Castro is the enemy, and he must be punished through relentless economic sanctions until he is overthrown. It has been said that the mayoralty of Miami is the only municipal position in America that requires a foreign policy.

The politics of this group tend to be extreme, uncompromising, unforgiving and, at times, starkly confrontational. Several years ago the publisher of the Miami Herald got into a public feud with Jorge Mas Canosa, head of Miami's Cuban-American National Foundation and Cuban Miami's most powerful leader. The publisher received threats considered so credible that he took to starting his car from inside his home, by radio remote.

The politics of confrontation belong to the old generation of Cuban Americans, the generation of Armando Gutierrez, and of the long-in-the-tooth czars of Miami Cuban radio, and of the Watergate Plumbers--burglar-ideologues who were working, in their estimation, for reelection of the candidate who would not sell their people out to Fidel Castro.

It is not the generation of the energetic young woman in her twenties who is walking up to Armando Gutierrez right now.

Martha Cangas is a second-generation Cuban American, a hotel executive. She shakes Gutierrez's hand, thanks him for defending Elian, and tells him that her hotel is at his disposal. She is grateful to her parents for leaving Cuba, and wants the same opportunities for Elian.

Gutierrez beams. This is important, he says. This issue is not just about the old Cubans, he explains. The youngsters--they, too, have made Elian their cause.

It's true. They have. And that, more than anything else, helps explain what is happening here.

Fresh Blood

Early last October a popular Cuban musical group, Los Van Van, came to Miami to give a concert. Los Van Van's music is not overtly political, but the group was said to have loose ties to Castro. Extremists railed on Cuban radio in Miami, and the concert scene turned ugly: More than a thousand demonstrators showed up; rocks and bottles were thrown.

It bothered many of the city's younger Cuban Americans, who are not as ideological as their parents. They grew up here. They lost nothing to Castro. Their hurts are inherited, less strongly felt. Their English is unaccented. They are assimilated.

"My students don't plan to open grocery stores in Hialeah," says Dario Moreno, a Cuban American political science professor at Florida International University. "Young Cubans in Miami don't own small businesses on Eighth Street. They work in banks and law firms. When 2,000 Cubans throw rocks, their clients ask them about it. And it is embarrassing."

Moreno says the Los Van Van concert, and the ensuing fallout, seemed to mark a turning point. The leadership of Cuban Miami was beginning to pass to another generation. Jorge Mas Canosa died in 1997, replaced by his son, who is said to lack his father's charisma. The strident voices of Cuban radio were beginning to lose their power. Nationally, some politicians were even starting to speak out about lifting the 40-year trade embargo against Cuba. Last March, infuriating many in Cuban Miami, the Baltimore Orioles played in Havana.

Then two fishermen found a boy in an inner tube.

"Before Elian Gonzalez," says Moreno, "we were growing up, moving to another stage, less extreme, less passionate. Elian Gonzalez allowed the old guard to reestablish control over politics, because Elian Gonzalez was the perfect symbolic case. A parent sacrifices everything so a child can live in freedom. It's hard for any Cuban American to say this boy should be returned."

It was an issue that so touched the heart of Cuban Miami that it practically dared local politicians to resist the urge to pander. Few could manage it. Consider the official statement of City of Miami Mayor Joe Carollo on March 29, when talks with the Immigration and Naturalization Service stalled and police action to physically wrest the boy from his relatives seemed imminent:

"The Miami Police Department will not participate in taking Elian Gonzalez away from his Miami family to be sent to Castro's hell."

It was pander-monium!

The war horses were back on top. It was them against Fidel. Just like old times.

The Last Hurrah

Back in November, 100 miles away, Castro wasn't doing so great, either. His economic problems were worsening. Dissident voices were strengthening. On Nov. 14, he was embarrassed when dissidents got an audience with foreign leaders at the Ibero-American summit in Havana. Castro was publicly castigated by other dignitaries for human rights violations. Soon the unthinkable occurred: Some 50 stalwarts mounted an anti-government demonstration in Havana.

And then two fishermen found a boy in an inner tube.

American imperialists, aligned with the Miami exile "mafia," decide to kidnap a Cuban child!

In Havana, thousands of mommies marched.

In Miami, protesters snarled city streets.

In Havana, Castro denounced the perfidy of the corrupt empire to the north, and handed out Elian pins and T-shirts.

"This is the last battle of the civil war," says Moreno. "The generation of 1958 that fought and won--or lost--the Cuban revolution are dying out."

Across the Florida Straits, old warriors--gray of hair, big of belly, short of breath, not long for this world--hunker down for one last, glorious fight.

Nothing Personal

Alex Penelas, the telegenic young Cuban American mayor of Dade County, has ambitions. It is said he is in line for a Cabinet post in a Gore administration, but he may be blowing it right now, this very second, on a downtown Miami street corner.

Penelas looks poised and polished, maybe a little too poised and polished and limber of mouth, like Jim Carrey when he acts sincere but is bootlegging a wisecrack. Penelas is standing at a lectern next to a half-dozen other local mayors, decrying the "strong-arm" tactics of the INS, and urging that Elian be allowed to remain in America. Nothing surprising there. He pledges not to let his police department participate in any move to take the boy away from Lazaro Gonzalez. Still, nothing surprising. Miami Mayor Carollo has already said as much. But then Penelas adds this:

"If their continued provocation . . . leads to civil unrest and violence, we are holding the federal government responsible, and specifically Janet Reno and President Bill Clinton."

One can almost hear, from the other mayors, a collective intake of breath. To many present it sounds extremely intemperate, as if Penelas is absolving Miamians of blame, in advance, if they riot.

About 50 feet away, a tall, mustached man stands with a cell phone to his ear, approvingly watching the scene. Ramon Saul Sanchez is a community activist, the one person most responsible for the street protests over Elian. It is Sanchez, bullhorn in hand, who has been showing demonstrators how to form a human chain around Elian's house if federal marshals arrive to take the boy. An office worker at a private low-income housing office, he and his democracia movement have been catapulted by the Elian Gonzalez case onto Miami's center stage. He says he's abandoned militancy for a Gandhi-like faith in nonviolent resistance.

Sanchez agrees to an interview, and immediately introduces the entourage of four men walking beside him this way: "They are not my bodyguards."

Sanchez sits surrounded by his non-bodyguards, who do not speak. Sanchez has two points to make: The first is that the Elian Gonzalez case is literally about life and death. He says many elderly Miami Cuban Americans with heart problems have come to him and told him that if Elian is sent back to Cuba, they will die, and Sanchez believes it. He also says Elian's life is in jeopardy if he returns.

"Let's say that Elian chooses not to be the kind of child that Castro wants him to be. Let's say five years from now he gives the wrong answers. 'Were you kidnapped or treated with love?' 'Was your mother irresponsible, or do you think she gave her life because she wanted to set you free?' Because of his prominence, Castro cannot afford for Elian to say anything to make him look bad. Elian's words in the future might have more weight than Castro's. So Castro will have to either, one, make him say the words he wants him to say or, two, make him disappear. Elian is in more danger than any other child in Cuba."

Sanchez's second point is that, for Miami's exile community, Elian's case "is inspired by a desire to see justice made and not by any kind of political motivation."

It is not political?

It is not, Sanchez says.

Sanchez came to the United States in 1967 as a teenager. His mother sent him here "because she didn't want me to fight foreign wars for Russian imperialism." He soon became allied with Free Cuba movements in the United States, a fact known to the Cuban government. His mother, he says, was told that because of his activism she would never be allowed to emigrate. Sanchez never saw her again. A few years ago, she died, in Cuba.

In 1982, Sanchez said, he was called before a federal grand jury investigating a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro. Sanchez is coy: Maybe he knew something about it, maybe not. Fact is, he refused to testify and for his silence served 4 1/2 years in prison.

But for Cubans, the Elian thing is not political?

Maybe it is a little political, he says.

A Small Triumph

On this day, things are not going great in talks with the INS. There is talk of Elian's father getting a visa to arrive in the United States, a huge monkey wrench to negotiations.

But here at Elian's house there is a spring in Armando Gutierrez's step and a smile on his face.

"I'm the only guy in the history of the world," he proclaims, "who ever called Fidel crazy on Cuban TV."

It seems that a snippet from a news conference he gave was played in Cuba. Castro got so infuriated when he heard it, Gutierrez says, that he turned his car around and gave a news conference of his own. Right there, on Cuban TV, he called Armando Gutierrez an idiota.

Gutierrez wears it like a medal.

Divorce, Cuban Style

In a palatial house in South Miami, wealthy Cuban Americans are gathered around a swimming pool to help launch a new Cuban museum. One of the celebrity guests is exile leader Jose Basulto, the head of an organization called Brothers to the Rescue, men who fly over the Florida Straits in small planes to spot refugee rafters. Basulto hates Castro. Castro hates Basulto. His MiGs shot Basulto's planes out of the sky, in fact.

After Elian Gonzalez was rescued, Basulto's first public statement was that the boy should go back to his father in Cuba. Soon, however, he changed his mind. He changed his mind when he heard that Castro wanted Elian back.

It's not like it sounds, Basulto says. It's that it suddenly became clear to him that Elian would suffer as a pawn of the revolution.

A lanky, sixtyish man plops down in a chair next to him. Eduardo Arango hates Castro, too.

Arango was a lawyer in Cuba, jailed as a dissident by Fidel after the revolution. Arango also thinks Elian should remain in the United States. But he says he finds the whole affair disturbing. He is appalled at how others are using the boy for their own purposes.

"Have you ever been involved in a divorce where each side hates the other?" Arango asks quietly. "What they do is play football with the child. Each side uses the child to get to the other one, and both sides hurt the child."

This hangs in the air a second or two.

"I don't think it's that way at all," Basulto says stiffly.

A Broken Family

It is hard to escape this description. A nasty divorce. In a sense, the entire history of Miami and Cuba is the history of a nasty divorce. It has wrenched families apart, with lingering ill will. It has wrenched all sorts of families apart. Late last year, a U.S. congressman from Miami gave Elian Gonzalez a puppy. The congressman was Lincoln Diaz-Balart, an ardent anti-communist. Diaz-Balart is Fidel Castro's nephew.

The history of Miami and Cuba wrenched Elian Gonzalez's family apart, too.

It is hard to remember this now, but the Miami, Fla., family fighting to keep Elian Gonzalez in the United States is the same family as the Cardenas, Cuba, family fighting to get him back. They had all lived together in Cuba for years. When Juan Miguel Gonzalez learned that Elian had survived, this is the family to whose care he entrusted the boy.

One of the saddest people in this whole mess is a man named Manuel Gonzalez, the great-uncle caught in the middle. Manuel is the brother both of Lazaro Gonzalez and of Juan Gonzalez, the grandfather in Cuba working to have Elian returned.

Manuel, 59, is a bus mechanic. He is as timid and soft-spoken as Lazaro is not. He has remained mostly silent throughout, though he did show up at a Senate hearing in February to voice his opinion.

Manuel spoke through an interpreter, and spoke badly. He rambled about the death of his own son, at 14, from cancer. He was trying to explain that it hurts any father to lose his son, but it came out all confused. Twice, senators interrupted to ask him to get to the point. Finally, he did.

He said that of all the great-uncles, he was always the closest to Elian. "I saw the boy being born," he said. And yet, he said, when he visited Elian here, his great-nephew hardly seemed to know him. He said he thought the child was in shock and desperately needed a return to the normalcy of life with his father. A boy needs his father's strength, he said.

These days, Manuel Gonzalez is a lonely man. On the street in Miami, he's been heckled, called a comunista and a traitor. His stance has estranged him from much of the rest of the family. He and his kid brother Lazaro are no longer on speaking terms.

Of Human Sacrifice

At the barricades one day, a demonstrator furtively offers a piece of paper to a reporter. It is two pages typed on a manual typewriter--an English translation, the demonstrator says, of an important document smuggled out of Cuba.

It is indeed astonishing. It says that Fidel Castro is a devotee of the mysterious Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria. It alleges that the Cuban dictator fears he has run afoul of the mighty Santeria saint Eleggua. It says that he has consulted snail shells, and "thrown coconuts," and sacrificed monkeys and goats and bulls and sheep, to no avail. It alleges that he believes Eleggua has taken up residence in the body of Elian Gonzalez, and that for Castro's luck to change, to save his regime, he must get Eleggua back.

It implies that when he gets him back, Elian will be sacrificed to the god that inhabits him.

It may seem far-fetched, but this fear is out there in the Cuban community.

The nun who at whose home the grandmothers met, Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, told the Miami Herald recently that one of the reasons she now believes Elian should stay in this country is that Lazaro Gonzalez passed her a note alleging exactly this: that he feared Elian would be sacrificed to witchcraft.

This secret document is not so secret. It is available in Spanish all over Cuban Miami. Here it is in print, the lead story in a local tabloid, under the headline "El Nino y la Bestia." The boy and the beast.

It's a free newspaper, picked up on this day from a giveaway stack on a table in the waiting room of the office of the Hon. Alex Penelas, Miami-Dade mayor.

Things are getting crazy here.

Saint Elian

The most popular poster in Cuban Miami shows Elian caressing a baby Jesus. It carries what might seem to be a puzzling message: Elian Conocio a Cristo. Otros lo Niegan. Elian met Jesus. Others deny Him.

To many Cubans here, there is no puzzle. Elian, out on the inner tube, was saved by Jesus. Castro and others who dabble in black magic are his enemy. This has emerged as a theme of the fight for Elian, a battle between light and dark, Good and Evil.

The first Virgin Mary appeared in the window of a Totalbank five blocks from Elian's house. It was first noticed by teller Maria Rodriguez. Although to some others it resembled nothing more than a soap smear, Rodriguez says that to her the image was unmistakable, even though "you could not see the body or the face." She did not elaborate. It did not matter. Beneath the window today are three dozen wilted floral bouquets and a two-year-old missing-persons flier.

When Miami Cubans organized a flashlight vigil 10 days ago, they did it this way: They massed by the thousands along SW Eighth Street and across 22nd Avenue, creating an enormous lighted cross.

Touched by Fame

If God, for whatever His reasons, has indeed orchestrated each painful development in this story, then there is one point at which He must have stopped, sat back and allowed himself a little giggle. It was the point at which He inventoried his realm and decided whom, of all the people on Earth, he would choose for the job of plucking young Elian from the sea.

Donato Dalrymple is the Fonz. He is a not-tall white guy with very well maintained hair and lavishly tattooed biceps, a man who speaks in deses and dats ("me and my cousin, we were out fishing . . .") and spiffs himself up for public appearances by wearing a sport jacket over a black T-shirt.

The Elian Gonzalez saga has made several people unlikely celebrities, and the unlikeliest may be Donato Dalrymple, the man who rescued the boy. In news accounts he is seldom referred to by name, but appears mostly simply as "the fisherman," which Dalrymple seems to dig for its religious ring. Donato Dalrymple spent years as an evangelist, and he even spread the gospel in Europe and Africa, but he never made much of a living at it and gave it up to clean people's floors and toilets. Now, suddenly, he is in demand.

Dalrymple confesses that he is considering reviving his ministry, and carrying it to a place where he already has an enthusiastic following: Cuban Miami.

Two other instant celebrities are Arianne Horta and Nivaldo Fernandez, the two adult survivors of Elian's shipwreck. She is 22, small and pretty; he is 32, small and lithe. They are boyfriend and girlfriend.

They agree to an interview because Armando Gutierrez asked them to. But they seem weary of rehashing the same facts--yes, Horta did leave her 5-year-old daughter behind because she thought the trip too dangerous, and now she misses the girl terribly; yes, before she died Elizabet Brotons, Elian's mother, asked Nivaldo to make sure Elian made it to shore; yes, yes, Lazaro Munero, Elian's stepfather, was a good man and not a bully or a criminal as Castro alleges; no, sigh, Horta is not a whore, as Castro says, and no, Nivaldo is not her pimp.

They seem like nice people, and they have been through a lot. Sitting in a booth in a fast-food restaurant, Horta volunteers little, nervously flossing her teeth with a strand of her hair, answering mostly in yeses and nos. Finally, she explains her reticence. She does not wish to surrender the best details of her story for free. There are movie people who have contacted her who are willing to pay.

End Game

Yesterday morning, Juan Miguel Gonzalez arrived in the United States, accusing Miami's Cubans of hurting his son and taking "political advantage" of his ordeal.

His appearance dramatically altered the shape of the standoff in Miami. Lazaro Gonzalez has said, and is continuing to say, that he will not voluntarily release the boy to the father until the case is resolved. Tensions in Miami are at their highest. What happens next may well depend on precisely how Lazaro Gonzalez plans to play his hand.

On March 12, Gonzalez agreed to a rare interview. It was conducted over coffee at an outdoor cafe in the heart of Cuban Miami. As he spoke, strangers at other tables called his name, flashed him victory fists.

Gonzalez, 49, is gracious--and firm. He does not show a moment's hesitation before he answers a question.

Once, he had indicated that he would return Elian to Juan Miguel if Juan Miguel demanded it and Lazaro believed the man was not speaking under duress. But now he says the key must be what Elian wants.

He says that if Elian wanted to return to Cuba, he would send him back tomorrow. But, he says, the boy does not want to go.

"The child has his own judgment and the child wants to stay here."

Can a 6-year-old possibly make such a judgment for himself? Or is he simply saying what he has been told to say?

"Even though he is 6, he knows where he is at. The child knows what he wants. The child is happy to be in a free country and happy with his cousins. I am going to fight for him because the best future for him as a man is here. I am going to fight for his freedom. In the courts. Wherever."

And if he wins, and Elian stays in the United States? What does he think Elian will be, when he is a man?

Gonzalez smiles. When Elian grows up, he says, Cuba will be free.

"He could grow up to be the president of Cuba."

But what if he loses his legal battle? Is it possible that if the courts order the boy returned to his father, that the Cuban American community will explode?

Gonzalez listens for the translation. Slaps his palm against the table.

"Correct," he says. "That's exactly what would happen."

The Charges

So what comes next?

The ugliest part may be ahead. There are cards yet to be played.

Among the court papers in this case are a number of sealed affidavits obtained by the lawyers for Lazaro Gonzalez speaking to many issues. One of these involves Elian's emotional health and possible ways he could be psychologically damaged if he is returned to Cuba. Separating him suddenly from Marisleysis and Lazaro Gonzalez, concludes child psychologist Mitch Spero, could cause "irreversible" emotional damage.

Other affidavits speak to Juan Miguel's fitness as a husband and a father.

One of these is from a woman named Ismary Pruneda. Pruneda knew Elian's mother, Elizabet Brotons, ever since she and Brotons were 15-year-old schoolgirls in Cardenas. Pruneda lives in Tampa now. She spoke about her friend in a brief interview.

She said that as Elizabet and Juan Miguel's marriage was falling apart, Elizabet tearfully took her into her confidence. Elizabet told her, said Pruneda, that Juan Miguel drank too much, and that he had cheated on her, and that he had brutalized her.

There's that sort of stuff out there, and more.

Cards yet to be played.

The Happy Ending

Some people aligned with Elian's Miami family believe this thing can still have a happy ending. The scenario goes like this: Juan Miguel goes to Miami to hash it out with his Uncle Lazaro. They fuss and fight, but eventually agree that the boy will stay. Maybe Juan Miguel decides to stay in Miami, too.

"It will be the family reunion from Hell," says Mike Braun, the investigator for the law firm representing Lazaro Gonzalez. "They'll fight and scream and then hug each other and decide what is best for Elian. A great moment in history, a sacred moment between the Cubans in Miami and the Cubans in Cuba."

Armando Gutierrez shares that fantasy up to a point. Gutierrez is less of a romantic. He's more of a politician, and a pragmatist.

"If Juan Miguel stays here," he says, "he will become one of the richest men in Miami. He has a son who is world-famous, a hero to Cubans. If Elian stays here, it is a love story with a beautiful end, and ABC or NBC would pay millions for it. It's the American system."

Special correspondent John Lantigua contributed to this report.