Aixa de la Cruz was born in Bilbao, Spain, in 1988. She used the time afforded by an Antonio Gala Foundation grant to write Cuando fuimos los mejores (When We Were the Greatest) in 2007, which was a finalist in the Premio Euskadia de Literatura in 2008. With the help of a scholarship from the Caixa Galicia, she wrote De música ligera (On Light Music) in 2009. Her stage play I don’t like Mondays is being shown in Mexico this year as part of the Muestra Nacional de Teatro de Monterrey.
De la Cruz has spent time in and around Mexico City, and the featured short story grew out of her interest in the jostle there between Catholicism, pre-Spanish folklore, and television series from the United States. She says she finds it curious to see the “Romantics gone pop” (“los románticos vueltos Pop”) in HBO series like Twilight, The Vampire Diaries and True Blood, and she uses descriptions of the origins of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Byron’s associations with vampire stories, to highlight the link. The comments on the conservative tendencies of young people today, as well as the protagonist’s cramped worldview, have to do with de la Cruz’s opinion that, in Europe in particular, “young people are supporting very reactionary methods, they’re in favor of abortion, they fill buses to go and see the Pope [speak] and above all there’s a kind of condescension towards the social movements of our parent’s generations . . . the Left seems to be an anachronism.” (“y la gente joven apoya medidas muy reaccionarias, están a favor del aborto, llenan autobuses para ir a ver al Papa y sobre todo hay una mirada muy condescendiente hacia los movimientos sociales que protagonizaron nuestros padres la izquierda parece un anacronismo”). This story comes from the collection Mi madre es un pez (Libros del Silencio).
(interview excerpts from gmail chat)
1. The youth born in the 1990s are destined to revive conservatism. Being the first generation, in quite some time, prudish enough to be shocked by the feats of Lord Byron, the nineteenth century really gets them going.
Waking from the anaesthetic, I found myself alone in the hospital ward. Someone had left a picture of the Virgin Mary on the bedside table and next to it a red, heart-shaped balloon. I tried sitting up to see if there were any other presents, but that pulled on the stitches in my abdomen. I let out a small cry, thinking this might alert a nurse. But a long moment passed and no one came. The baby was sleeping opposite the bed; it wasn’t making any noise, so I guessed it must have been sleeping. From where I was lying I could only really see the cot, which was made of grey plastic, the same color plastic as the sick bowl and the bedpan at the foot of the bed. In public hospitals they’re saving wherever they can—my mother-in-law explained to me later—the same plastics company gets the contract for all sorts of things, that’s why everything is the same color. Public hospitals in Mexico are always monotone, and you’ll always have one of those cheap Doctor Simi pharmacies in the vicinity. Simi comes from similar, like generic—but Doctor Simi is also that fat, beardy character they used to present the state elections. A few hours later, sitting up in bed, I could see a mascot outside the window dressed up in Doctor Simi’s own image and likeness, handing out flyers by the traffic lights.
2. Hippies are dirty and promiscuous; no child of the Facebook generation wants his or her mother seen wearing those flowery skirts. In contrast, they consider the eighteenth century figure of José Cadalso to be deeply romantic.
I thought it strange the baby not crying. I wanted to get up and check that it was all right, but I was worried I’d hurt myself, plus I was in a bit of a daze—it was as though my eyelids weighed more than usual. I asked myself: what dreams would I have had while I was under? I couldn’t remember a thing. Strange, because I always dream, and I always remember my dreams. I’d had a recurring nightmare over the previous nine months, over and over: in agony, I’d be giving birth to a baby that made a sound like a cat. It came out covered in all the usual blood and muck, five fingers on each hand, two eyes, a mouth—the usual—but miaowing, too. I still don’t understand it; but then again I don’t know if dreams are always meant to be understood.
3. People born in the 90s like vampires. What is not so clear is whether, by the same token, they also like Lord Byron.
After a while, half an hour or so, I began shouting “Nurse! Nurse!” This woke the baby—the first time I’d heard it cry. It was an irritating sound—like it had swallowed a rusty spring—but at least it sounded normal; it sounded human. I breathed a bit easier and while I was waiting for the nurse to come I wondered whether Jorge had managed to sort out the cable contract for the TV. He’d promised he would, so I’d have something to do during the days I’d be spending in bed. In the end he didn’t keep his promise—apparently the nappies had been more expensive than he’d expected—but I remember finding the thought very comforting. As it happened, the new House series was starting that week . . . Finally the nurse showed up: “How are you feeling?” she asked, off-hand, cold almost, as she leaned down to look in the cot. I knew the medical staff were being like this with me because I’d had a caesarean, which is more expensive for them—they get angry with you for having slim hips, like a child’s. “My stitches are pulling,” I said. She brought me the baby, wrapping it in white linen—yellowish linen, in fact, like they’d washed it in too much bleach. The child’s face was so bloodless it stood out against the sheets. “Is it normal for it to be that pale?” She placed it in my arms. It was bald and white and had hardly any eyelashes. And it was really clean, as though it hadn’t spent nine months crammed in among my internal organs. I said to myself it was ugly—no way Jorge could ever come to like a child like this. “The doctor will come by later,” the nurse said. “You should try feeding.” A shiver went through me.
4. Children from the 90s don’t know who Lord Byron is. According to a report by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).
For that, I hoped my mother-in-law would come. Having had six children, she had a bit of experience. Her job finished mid-afternoon. The baby was hungry even though they’d given it a bottle at feeding time. Now, instead of crying, it began forming an O with its tiny lips. The effort brought blood to its face, which made it nicer to look at. Its grandmother was also a bit shocked by how white its skin was. “The doctor says it’s got Thalassemia,” I told her. Before asking what Thalassemia was, before I could reassure her that it wasn’t anything serious— ma’am, you only have to avoid hemorrhages, and that it doesn’t get hit by anything—she began shouting that everything would have been all right if Jorge and I had only married, like she’d said. That made me hate her; now that it’s in the past, though, I do ask myself if she mightn’t have had a point. Some things it’s better you don’t meddle with. Might as well take precautions, because when God’s ire is provoked—how can I put it . . . Anyway. “Take out your breast,” she said, shutting the door. “Which one?” I said. Maybe I was playing for time. The baby, its mouth in an O, was so eager it seemed like it could extract my soul by slurps. “Don’t act useless,” said my mother-in-law. I took the left one—like an udder, something strange, something not belonging to me—and offered it up to the livid monster. It was a bit like a pre-Hispanic sacrifice scene, but, being European, my savage mutilation must have been closer to Saint Agueda’s. The baby tried to find my nipple; it seemed confused. Nothing strange about that—my boobs were enormous, the nipples tiny by comparison, as was the baby’s head—ridiculously small. I thought it might suffocate if it got stuck in my cleavage. My mother-in-law tried helping. The baby kept missing the spot, all gummy nips and saliva, and soon it was crying even harder. As was I, in the end—tears of frustration. “Best leave it,” said my mother-in-law before going off to look for the nurse. She clearly wasn’t happy. I carried on staring at the baby, which was writhing, hoarse, its skin all wrinkled—like it was made out of some weird material. We seemed like different species. And where were my maternal instincts? I’d been told it was instantaneous, natural, inevitable—a chemical change that would just happen during birth. But they had told me other things too: that I shouldn’t be a mother; that I was too young; that in Mexico City, where the Democratic Revolution Party is in power, abortion is legal, like homosexual marriage.
5. On the 17th of June, 1816 a meeting took place that was of vital importance to both that century and our current one; for Mary Shelley, for John Polidori, as well as for Stephanie Meyer, the HBO network, author of The Vampire Chronicles Anne Rice and extreme metallers Cradle of Filth.
6. Lord Byron’s summer residence was called Villa Diodati. Accused of having dishonored his sister, he had fled England and was squandering his inheritance entertaining a number of quarrelsome exiles, including Mary Wollstonecroft Godwin and her husband-to-be, the long-winded poet Shelley. On the evening of the 17th of June, 1816, John Polidori was also there: Byron’s shadow, his personal doctor as well as his personal Salieri. A poor imitation.
7. The Romantics—immune to cliché, precisely like the children of the 1990s—read horror stories, by the fire, in gothic houses, at nightfall. On that symbolic evening, Villa Diodati’s retinue of adulterous literary types read aloud from a German collection of fantasy stories. Byron used the stories as a way of challenging the others.
Two days later, I tried feeding again. I was back home by now. Jorge had just left and wasn’t going to be back all weekend. I’d hugged him as hard as I could and pleaded with him not to go. I was afraid of being alone in the house with the baby. But a temping agency had called and offered him a job driving a truck down to Tamaulipas overnight—decent money—he couldn’t say no. Meantime, I’d begun walking on my own, the stitches had started to heal, and Jorge’s mother had been coming in the afternoons and evenings to help around the house. “When you get back we’ll pick a name, yeah?” The child was six days old already and it was starting to feel weird it not having a name. It reminded me of our dog, Xena, which we bought as a puppy at the market. Since my mother said they always come sick, she wouldn’t let me christen it until it had survived two weeks. I couldn’t get the idea out of my head that they were doing the same thing now with my child. It clearly wasn’t healthy; it hardly ate. But even children that seem like they’re going to die should be baptized, so at least there’s a name to write in the death announcements.
8. If Byron had been Spanish he would have challenged them with blunderbusses, but, being British, he proposed they write a novel. Only Mary Shelley and Polidori took on the bet. Polidori was a second-rate talent, meaning no one paid much attention to what he came up with. Frankenstein, on the other hand—even children from the 1990s know about that.
I felt less uncomfortable—no one was watching this time. People can say it’s all natural, but if you don’t go topless on the beach why would you breastfeed in full view of the world—in front of families who hang on your every move, who applaud? I took the little one in my arms, with its deathly white, tuberculosis-looking face, and began humming a song I’d learned when I arrived in Mexico about the Wailing Woman, a ghost who appears at night in search of her dead children. Jorge said that when he and his sister were living out on the plains, they used to hear her, particularly in winter. The baby let out a burp, twisting its face into something resembling a smile. “You have to eat, little one,” I said, putting my nipple to its lips, “or you’re going to die with no name.” It felt its way around for a while and then, suddenly, I felt a pressure and an excruciating pain. I let out a scream and pulled it off me. And screamed again: it had blood dripping from its mouth. It actually licked its lips. The dark circle around my nipple had two tiny punctures. The baby was making ungainly sorts of grimaces, trying to get close to the source of food again, writhing, but as far as I could see not a single drop of milk had come out. Putting it back in its cot, I began crying uncontrollably. I put the TV on full-volume and shut myself in the kitchen. Trembling, I took some powdered milk out of the cupboard and started making up a bottle. The sound of the TV drowned out the baby’s cries, but I knew it was still there, on the other side of the sound of the person presenting The Biggest Loser. I couldn’t get the picture out of my mind; my Thalassemic child with its bloody mouth—a ghost-like image.
9. Polidori’s fate was a tragic one. He lived in Byron’s shadow, and Byron mocked him, his love of medicine and his love of poetry—and the fact these were his only loves. His revenge on Byron was to write a story called The Vampire.
That week the doctor came to the house. He said the baby was fragile and that if we didn’t get it to eat, it would have to be taken to the hospital. There were four of us in the kitchen, the doctor, my mother-in-law, Jorge and me; they were all giving me accusing looks. “You couldn’t give birth to it on your own, and now you can’t even look after it,” they seemed to be saying. I waited until they had all left, and then I cut my hand. I never thought I’d be able to harm myself, but then I did it without thinking. After all, I was the worst mother in the world; I had to do something to make up for what I’d done. My hand bled profusely; I let the blood fall and collect in a bowl. I drained myself almost to the point of passing out. Then I mixed it with the milk powder. When I stirred it, it turned a perfect pink color—like a liquefied strawberry. My heart was pounding because I didn’t know if it was ethical, what I was doing: I knew that God condemned vampirism, I knew that I was infringing certain laws, though I couldn’t have said which, or why. Clearly it was disgusting, and there’s a link between what we find disgusting and the things God condemns, like bestiality, cannibalism, incest, homosexuality. But the fact is—God forgive me—this bottle full of pink milk was the first thing my baby guzzled down with any sort of appetite since the day it had been born.
10. In The Vampire, Polidori revived the legend of the bloodsuckers, and the vampire takes the shape of an eccentric British aristocrat who goes around Europe corrupting upper class women. It’s basically Byron in inverted commas. This was the only thing Polidori wrote that garnered any attention; it had an impact at the time because everyone thought Byron must have had something to do with it.
The child got better right away; its new diet invigorated it. We even started to see some color in its cheeks. Obviously, I was the only one who knew its particular tastes. Each day I’d cut myself somewhere new, trying to do it in places that wouldn’t be seen. Not that Jorge was going to see; he found the scars over my womb disgusting and would turn out the lights before I got undressed. But his mother, she could definitely have been suspicious. Which made the upper part of my bottom particularly good. I’d numb myself with an ice cube down there, and the bleeding wouldn’t last long; I used ferns to stop it—a remedy from home. Everything was under control but after a few days I began to feel really weak. One morning I woke up feeling even tireder than usual, started making scrambled eggs and immediately fell flat on my back onto the dish cabinet, unconscious. Opening my eyes, I found myself on the floor, broken plates all around me. Some glass had cut me on the shoulder and I was bleeding hard. The baby was crying more fiercely than ever. I thought something must have been attacking it; I felt its torment in my ears, like the pressure swimmers feel underwater. Then it hit me: it was the smell of my blood that was driving it crazy. I got up and followed the impulse to lock the door to its room. I was terrified. There had been a moment where I’d known that the child was coming for me, its lips open in an O, ready to suck all of my blood through the wound. Hearing it scratching at the door, I became even more frightened. How could it have got out of its cot unaided? I grabbed my jacket and a bit of money, locked up and went running from the house.
11. The vampire in The Vampire is Byron, and the vampire in The Vampire is the vampire from Dracula and Twilight; which will be why they dress like British gentlemen and not medieval Romanians.
Pregnant women are full of fear. They fear that their children will come out albinos or with six fingers, color-blind or with Down’s Syndrome, abnormal, of a different race to the father, hermaphrodites, without any arms, without legs, heart too big, bones made of glass. But in general they don’t think that the child might come out a vampire. Which is what had maybe happened to me. After I’d been to the emergency room, where they gave me two stitches on my shoulder, I went to a bar and ordered tequila with sangrita. I thought about how strange my fate was. I tried to get straight what I knew about bloodsuckers: Dracula, Twilight, Vampire Diaries . . . In the stories they never try it with children, it’s taboo—which is because we like to think they come into the world clean, without anything on them that God should punish. I thought about my literature professor back in Spain, who said that books help us to understand life, and that seemed to me to be a big lie because there was nothing in Anne Rice that could guide me through that moment. The tequila went straight to my head, which is what happens when you’ve been losing blood day after day—you get drunk on hardly anything. I took out my phone to check the time and saw I had more than ten missed calls from Jorge and his mother. My heart started going. What might they have found in the house? I took the bus home and tried to think about nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing; I repeated it to myself. The first thing I saw was an ambulance in front of the house. If there had been a death, if the shape they were carrying out to the ambulance was a corpse, I wished it would be that of the child. After all, eternity would preserve it, the same as any vampire.
12. Nowadays, there are around a hundred vampire sects in the United States alone. On the Mexican Yahoo! Answers, dozens of people ask if drinking human blood will make them more beautiful, or stronger, or immortal. Anyone interested is advised to Google “drink human blood?”
(Note: José Cadalso was a Spanish author, playwright and essayist in the eighteenth century who was accused of necrophilia.)
Thomas Bunstead writes regularly for the TLS and the Independent on Sunday. His fiction and essays appear at >kill author, Days of Roses, readysteadybook.com, and the Paris Review Blog. As a Spanish translator, he has worked with Eduardo Halfon, Yuri Herrera and Enrique Vila-Matas.
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