One day she wakes up slagging off the nurses.
‘They’re scumbags, Julián. I spend twenty hours hooked up to the black mask. They switch off the pump, and I tell them I want a shower, and one of them says, “Go on then. Get on with it. I’ll bring you a clean gown in a minute.” Can you believe it? And me with the needle skewered in my arm and the IV tubing still hanging from the stand, dragging the empty bag of my chemotherapy around like a lost soul. Can you believe it? And there’s no way I can say, ‘Just how, you moron, am I supposed to take off the gown if you don’t disconnect me from that bag of trash first?’ Because these ladies here get in a huff if they so much as hear you breathe. They’re scumbags.’
My sister leaves the room and says to the girl on duty:
‘She’s beginning to love you like a daughter.’
I guess all this could be interpreted as good news. But the temptation to hope is the most dangerous of all. Letting your guard down. Not my style. If she recovers, maybe. If she dies, no way. There’s no blessing comparable to the act of loving your mother, watching her grow weaker and doing absolutely nothing. I mean, nothing emotional: signing checks, going to meetings with doctors, drumming up blood donations. Nothing more.
This month, my life is more like a political campaign than a tragedy. I listen for my cell phone the whole day. Shake hands. Hug people. I give the nurses books and candy. I treat my wife and sister as if they were my media coordinators, the doctors like backers, the officials like my party leaders, my acquaintances like a moronic, easily influenced bunch of voters . . . I treat my mother’s weakened body as if it were a piece of proposed legislation. Look at her: she’s broken, she’s running a fever, she needs your blood, she was never up to much, but with a little help from you, with our confidence, with the help of the youth, she’ll soon be something more than a pain or an invention of mine getting covered in sores in a narrow bed. Soon she’ll be cured and will be a symbol of the Triumph of Good at the Heart of Our Society.
For example, Friday: they allowed her a break from the chemo, but instead of resting she made everyone around her suffer. She got out of bed, showered without help, asked for the meagre hair she had (the chemo had been leaving her balder by the day) to be cut, ate heartily and sat in the chair, requested a Jennifer Aniston chick flick, and went on the whole time about how she was ready to go home. The next morning there was a power outage in the hospital and we were eight hours late in transfusing the platelet apheresis. Her anemic complexion returned, and she scarcely had the energy to arch her back when we brought the bedpan. In a whisper, clenching her jaws, she said to me:
‘Please, take me out of here. Take me home. I don’t want to die looking at this ridiculous colored flooring.’
Thanks to the leukemia, I came to understand that provisionality is not a choice: it’s the stark rhythm of the mind. It’s hardly been three weeks, but human contact, as I’ve known it, has vanished, swallowed by the microscopic tsunami of cancer. Human contact has become a sticky substance. An archipelago of clots, packaged and refrigerated under the oily light of the blood bank. She’s a vampire and I’m her Renfield: Mamá had drunk from the veins of half my friends.
First they requested five units of red blood cells. They already had B positive, so it didn’t matter which blood group we deposited in exchange. Over twenty donors turned up. Almost all of them women. Only three candidates passed the test: all the girls were anemic, and the majority of the males were promiscuous, took drugs, or had gotten tattoos in the preceding months. Then they asked for more: four, five, six, seven bags. They are like livers embalmed by Mattel. One Tuesday, around eighteen of us got together to collect the rest of the transfusions Lupita needed. The Grand Intellectual Marathon for a Good Cause: join up, help, participate.
One by one, we went in.
The blood bank has an Aztec altar blade. Those who have been rejected come out with tears in their eyes, ashamed, folding the piece of paper with diagrams explaining why their blood isn’t right for the sacrifice. Periodic poets. Malnourished singers. Painters with thin veins. Historians with an excess of red cells. Virus-laden journalists. Culture professionals without platelets. A whole altarpiece of champions of civilization made ridiculous by a frigging needle.
So far, the mortification had been more or less Rabelaisian, although governed by Darwinian and fiduciary logic: I need your blood, give it to me in exchange for that mercantile zone of idealism we term Friendship. Something reducible, if only metaphorically, to the IMF. But later they requested the first of twelve platelet aphereses. The platelets are in a thick liquid vaguely resembling pineapple juice. To extract them, the torture victim has to be connected to a machine that extracts his blood, sucks out the yellow soul, and returns the red chaff to the hostage body. When I say ‘torture victim,’ I’m not using the term figuratively: ask someone who has donated platelets how it feels. Talk about luxury: extracting two pints of apheresis costs the same as three bottles of your average Moët & Chandon. Mamá sybaritic and Gothic.
My uncle Juan – my great-uncle, in fact – was a witch hunter. Mamá says he hunted them with a length of blessed cord, a rosary, a white sheet, a red candle made from animal fat, and the sharp edge of a bottle top, his fingers forming a cross, scoring the back of the Evil One twenty times.
‘Witches have to be caught using two methods,’ Marisela would explain, grazing our goose-pimpled arms with her long nails during certain nights of the happy period when we lived in the Alacrán neighborhood. ‘With prayers and dirty tricks. Because mention of God makes them angry, and vulgarity mixed with saintly tricks catches them on the hop. Your uncle Juan was an old hand, a master of capture. First he’d bombard them with Our Fathers, then he’d call them sluts and daughters of bastard fathers. He used to prowl around their cabins (because in olden days witches lived in the countryside; they didn’t like cities), and alternated prayers and obscenities while fingering his rosary beads or knotting the Holy Cord. Sometimes he sang songs to seduce them. The Cuban songs he and grandfather Pedro used to like: ‘On the Trunk of a Tree, a Child’ or ‘Sleep Peacefully beneath the Ground.’ Sometimes he even played the guitar. And then he’d start again: Go fuck your mother, you frigging witch. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners. It drove them crazy. And on and on until the devilish woman would come out of her cabin and fly into the nearest tree in the form of an owl.’
Mamá never believed those stories. She related them because they were part of our inheritance, and because we used to beg to hear them.
At first, she’d say no.
‘You’re not dumb enough to believe superstitions, but not serious enough to deal with them. You’ll have nightmares till dawn, and then it’s me who doesn’t sleep.’
(This last remark was particularly directed at me; I was chicken-hearted as a child.)
In the end, we’d manage to persuade her.
She had an extraordinary talent for oral narrative. To give her story fluidity, she’d walk around the kitchen table, preparing something or other: doughnuts, coffee with rich brown sugar, maize tortilla dessert. She’d gather up her hair (which she’d begun to wear shorter: barely past her shoulders) and, looking the other way, stroke the backs of our necks to give us a fright.
‘“With this cord, I tie you to the earth,” Juan would repeat seven times, the number of white magic. He’d repeat those words over and over, tying knots in the Sacred Cord as he walked around the tree chosen by the witch. The owl (and you should be aware there’s no such thing as a good owl: they’re all quick-change artists or members of some troupe of damned souls) would retreat further into the tree, wanting to fly but unable to do so: even though it’s in the tree, the knots of the blessed cord are binding its wings to the earth. Then, when the owl was already pretty stunned, my Uncle Juan would lasso it and wrap it in a white sheet. He’d cover it in scratches by making the sign of the cross on its body with a sharp bottle top, while repeating and calling out foul words and prayers. And, finally, he’d scorch its wings with the molten wax of the red candle.’
(I wonder if the Society for the Protection of Animals existed in that near-legendary era.)
Mamá used to finish the story in different ways. In some versions, the witch escaped, leaving Uncle Juan with the scar ‘he carries on his face to this day, as proof of that fierce battle’. In others, the owl was reduced to ashes: shuddering and uttering dreadful insults, its body was consumed by the fire. Then there were two, maybe three evil beasts. Or one very beautiful beast, whose sins Uncle Juan managed to redeem after falling in love with her long hair.
‘And where does Uncle Juan live, Ma? Why doesn’t he ever visit us?’
Mamá would turn down the heat a little under one of her stews.
‘Uncle Juan plays guitar in the cantinas in Laredo. And we don’t need him to come and see us. We’re not part of that filthy world any longer.’
‘What are you dreaming about, my love?’ asks Mónica.
I’m laughing in my sleep. Without waking, I say:
‘I know how to put the chalk on the doors.’
It’s a happy dream. Mónica knows it: I never learned how to draw.
After a while the image drifts: the wall I’m drawing on belongs to a sanatorium. I’m wearing a gown, I’m hospitalized, my butt uncovered. The nurses pamper me, they come to say hello to me one by one. You can see they think I’m handsome. They lay me down on the shady side. Next to my mattress there’s a window. Someone says:
‘Don’t open it, lad, never open it. A vampire owl lives in that tree over there.’ Smiling, I agree. They’re crazy, they like me. People in this fucking country are so ignorant. After a while I prepare a syringe. I’m going to give Mamá an injection for her fever. I know how to do it. I’m her doctor. In my dream, she’s lying on a hospital bed, identical to the hospital bed where she actually sleeps. I’ve told her I’m going to cure her. I ask for swabs, measure out the dose. A solicitous man with a mustache and gray hair, wearing a blue gown, asks if he can help me. He looks like Humberto, the head nurse on the evening shift in male medical at the U.H. I say no, turn my back on him. And suddenly I remember: shit, dammit, I’d opened the window. It’s the son of the frigging vampire owl that lives in the tree. I turn and see him in the bed, in Mamá. In, not beside. Not fucking her either. In: halfway inside her, as if they were twins, or as if one of them was a glove puppet. I grab its hand. I tug. I say, ‘Go fuck your mother, you frigging witch.’ But the vampire owl doesn’t come out from between the sheets. It just smiles. Without evil intent. A stupid smile.
I know that to beat it I have to pray like my great uncle did.
I can sing to it, tie it up, seduce it, say foul words to it, score its cheeks with a bottle top. Pray, no. Not praying is all I have.
This is an extract from Tomb Song by Julián Herbert, published by Graywolf Press in March 2018.
Image © STML