Agustín Cadena – Five Stories / Livia Radwanski – Photos from ‘Unos Otros Méxicos’

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Novelist, poet and translator, Agustín Cadena is known above all for his short stories. Born in 1963, since the early ’90s his eerie, brilliant stories have been a major reference point in Mexican literature; Juan Domingo Argüelles has called him one of the best writers of his generation. The first four of these stories were translated by poet and translator Patricia Dubrava; the fifth and final story is a version (first published in Exile) by the great C.M. Mayo.
The stories are accompanied by unnerving and beautiful photographs taken from the book Unos Otros Méxicos by Brazilian photographer Livia Radwanski; the book was among the 20 finalists in the 1st Latin American Photobook contest, and received an honorable mention in the II Artist Photobook International Fair in Mexico City. The series reflects the ideals and irrealities which are manifested through objects and the expressions of daily life in Mexico City. We will feature more of this collection in a future article on Mexico City Lit.

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RED BEACH

Although there’d been signs of rain since early in the day, Ocampo wanted to go to the beach to watch the sunset. But he arrived too soon and the sun was still high. Most of the tourists had already gone: there were only a few children, a couple bobbing in the waves, and an old woman with sunburned skin. Ocampo couldn’t take the hot sand on his bare feet, so he went down to the water’s edge, to that moist fringe where the surf had sown a line of seaweed. He started walking along it, following the smooth curve of the bay. The waves cooled his feet; once in a while one swirled around his ankles. Behind him he heard laughter and shouts; ahead, in the distance, he could see the perimeter of palms, modest hotels and simple summerhouses, some converted into bars.

At some point, he felt a presence walking beside him: a pair of bare feet that strode without flinching in the hot sand. He turned. It was a girl of about ten, a native. Certainly, she couldn’t be anything but a native to judge by the chocolate tone of her skin, and because she didn’t appear to be interested in the sea since she wore a long denim dress instead of a bathing suit. The sun, now beginning to drop, made her dark skin glow for an instant and then disappeared behind gray clouds.

Ocampo didn’t look at the girl again. Actually, her uninvited company made him uncomfortable. He continued walking, a little more rapidly. He was wondering if he would have time to reach the end of the beach before it began to rain.

The girl matched her stride to his, keeping the distance between them the same. What did she want? Was she going to ask him for money? Try to sell him something? Ocampo thought that if he ignored her completely, she’d give up and leave him in peace. But that didn’t happen.

When she tired of waiting for some overture on his part, the girl took the initiative. “Hello,” she said.

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Ocampo felt forced to respond, but also relieved—finally she would say what she had to say to him, ask what she had to ask and leave him alone. “Hello.”

The girl smiled at him in such a way that Ocampo relaxed and immediately felt less urgency to be rid of her.

“What’s your name?” She asked, with a strong local accent that seemed charming to him. She was pretty: had big, dark eyes and a look full of innocence.

“Roberto Ocampo, and you?”

“Esmeralda.”

“Ah,” he said, and nothing else. It had always been hard for him to begin a conversation with a woman, no matter what age she was.

“Where are you going?” The girl asked, helpful.

“I don’t know. To see if I can get to the end of the beach. And you?”

“I’m going where that man goes.”

“Who?”

“That one walking up there. Can’t you see him? He’s carrying a red ice cream cooler.”

Ocampo made out a silhouette about 200 meters or more ahead of them, a thin man with a baseball cap.

“He’s my papá,” explained the girl. “He sells ice cream.”

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“Ah.” Ocampo moved away from her. It made him uneasy that the father would see him near his daughter. But the man turned in a moment, perhaps looking for the girl, saw them together and said nothing. Ocampo relaxed again. “But there aren’t many people on the beach and besides it’s going to rain.”

“No.”

“No what?”

“It’s not going to rain, Roberto.” She seemed completely convinced. “My mamá asked God not to let it rain until my papá finishes selling all the ice creams.”

“Ah, and you’re sure that God listens to your mother?” He regretted it the moment he said it: it seemed indecent to impose cynicism on such a young girl. But she was not bothered.

“Yes. He always listens to her. He’s going to send the rain to the mountains so my papá can finish selling the ice cream.”

Ocampo preferred to talk of something else: he didn’t want his bitterness to show. He asked Esmeralda about school. She was in her second year. He asked her who made the ice creams that her father sold. She told him the whole family made them.

“And how many are in your family?”

“Three—Mamá, Papá and me.”

Finally, Esmeralda was bored with the conversation. She got to the point:

“If you don’t give me all the money you have in your wallet, I’m going to shout that you’re saying dirty things to me.”

Ocampo stared at her, incapable of comprehending. As if his mind refused to accept what Esmeralda was saying to him. As if suddenly she were someone else. Her eyes were someone else’s. She was no longer a young girl.

“People would come to defend me,” she insisted. “My papá would call the cops and they would take you to jail.”

At last he reacted. He took his wallet out and gave her everything in it, without saying anything. She grabbed the bills and sprinted toward her father, who, in spite of being weighed down by the cooler, walked rapidly.

Ocampo turned toward the sea. All that remained of the sun was a slender orange fingernail, but the surface of the water was blazing. There were no clouds: they had gathered in the distance, over the mountains.

Ocampo smiled.

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REFUGEE CAMP

It’s a secret place. Even the people who live nearby don’t know it exists. The government doesn’t want to reveal it because their scientists haven’t been able to obtain satisfactory information. The refugees don’t speak any known language, so no one knows what they are called, where they came from, or where they were trying to go.

They were found in a variety of places. One appeared floating in the river, almost dead. Another crossed the border by train, without having a passport, any type of identification or a cell phone: nothing that would help to track him. One of the women was found walking along the edge of the highway. Most of them were picked up on the streets of some city: homeless. Their fingerprints don’t appear in any data banks. Their DNA is indecipherable. All of them are young and all of them have mysterious marks on some part of their bodies.

The government has them there, in that secret camp which from afar looks like a military base, while they try to learn more about them. There are barbed wire fences, dogs, armed guards.

The refugees live in individual camping tents; they have a bathroom, volleyball net, and a dining hall, although there’s no meal schedule. They can go whenever they want. They never talk, not even among themselves. They seem neither interested in anything nor afraid of anything. Sometimes they smile to themselves, for no apparent reason. And sometimes they set to drawing signs in the sand of the campground. Who knows what they signify: they are mysterious signs like the ones they have on their bodies.

The government knows nothing about them, but the refugees are mentioned in the ancestral books. There they even talk about those marks, although nothing is said about what they mean. The books call them “The Messengers.”

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Through That Door

It didn’t enter his mind that it would be her when he opened the door that night. He was pouring himself a glass of milk and heard the knock. It wasn’t very late, around ten. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t think it strange that someone was at the door. The neighbors came around that time to borrow something or to give him some news because they knew he wasn’t home earlier. He went to the door in his pajamas with the glass of milk in his hand, distracted. Sugar from a sweet roll dusted his lips. He was starting to clean it off with his hand.

He didn’t know what to do when he saw her. He stood there, blocking the entrance, not done wiping his mouth. He looked at her as if he couldn’t recognize her. He had to say her name. And on saying it, he felt they’d fallen between two frozen stones.

“May I come in?” She asked him in a very low voice, barely audible, looking at his lips.

He didn’t move aside; he only lifted his arm so she could pass under it with her suitcase, like in a game. And when she did, he caught her odor: the disagreeable odor of a strange woman, a woman who hadn’t slept in a clean bed.

She stopped in the middle of the living room, perhaps waiting for him to close the door. She might have been afraid he would change his mind and throw her out. He kept looking at her, smelling her, with distaste. He had opened his door to a vagabond, to an animal that’s lost its home and takes refuge in the first warm place it finds. It surprised him that his anger remained sleeping within. He closed the door slowly and locked it.

“Thank you,” she said to his back, rubbing her hands as if she wanted to warm them. But it wasn’t cold in the house.

He turned, facing her. He felt uncomfortable raising the glass of milk to his mouth.

“Would you like something to eat?” he asked, so he could finish his snack in peace, without feeling as if he were robbing someone of something.

She nodded and stood there looking toward the door of the kitchen. It was a gigantic door, imposing: the door to a forbidden city. Yet she remembered the dishes, how many there were of each type, and the pots and pans, the silverware; one of the knives had its point broken off because he tried to use it as a screwdriver. The apron his sister had given… His voice yanked her from her reverie.

“Why don’t you put your suitcase on the chair?”

He repented immediately of having said that, of being nice, and added: “It’s in the way.”

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When he’d considered the possibility that she’d return, he always thought he would be tough: he’d throw her out in the street. Or take her back just to punish her. Those were his fantasies: subject her to all kinds of private and public humiliations, make her get drunk, undress before others, sell her like a prostitute and then throw the cash earned in her face, go to bed with another woman and make her watch, make her sleep naked on the floor, like a dog, at the foot of the bed. But now he was capable of doing nothing. He only looked at her. With pity.

She also ran her gaze over him with a pitying look, as if he were the one asking something and she had the power of granting or refusing. She inhaled deeply, searching for a familiar smell in the house.

He wanted to say something cruel or at least ironic, but a question was burning inside him.

“What have you come for?”

She looked at him, trying to measure his hate, to calculate how much ground she could recover. She hesitated. The idea that another woman could be in the house, asleep in the bedroom, crossed her mind. “May I use the bathroom?”

“Tell me why you’re here.” He had recovered his power.

She lowered her head. “Can you forgive me?”

He had the answer ready. He had so much hoped for this moment. “No.”

He was at the foot of the stairs, so that no one could go up them. So that she couldn’t.

She hadn’t arrived prepared. She’d thought she would say, “I love you,” but before she uttered the words knew she had no emotion with which to fill them. She opted for sincerity. “It hasn’t gone well for me.”

He didn’t answer her.

“Aren’t you even going to say that you already knew that? Aren’t you going to admit that you wanted to see me like this: defeated, asking your forgiveness?”

“That’s how you come here—defeated and asking forgiveness?”

“I already said that.”

He smiled. A smile of triumph. But he didn’t say anything. He didn’t respond.

“Do you want me to beg on my knees? What do you want me to do?”

“And if I told you there’s no place for you here, that I have another woman upstairs?”

She stared at him, weighing his words. The house gleamed cleanly, everything in order. Perhaps… but he looked bad: he hadn’t shaved, his eyes were sunken.

“That’s not true.”

He dropped his gaze and the arm he had braced to defend the stairs. He was silent. Then, slowly, he stepped aside.

“You know where the bathroom is.”

She climbed the stairs quickly, almost running. He let himself fall into the easy chair, began to knead his neck. But he didn’t want to think. He pulled himself together and went to the kitchen to make a sandwich. For her.

She met him there, without saying anything. She sat in a chair. In her chair.

He finished making the sandwich and put it on a plate. Then he opened a bottle of soda and poured her some.

“Thank you,” was all she said. For a long time they didn’t speak. She ate seated at the end of the table and he cleaned an imaginary stain on the counter.

“Thank you.” she repeated when he took the empty plate. She caressed his hand, which he pulled away impulsively.

“Where are you going to sleep?” He asked her. With pleasure, looking her in the eye.

It’s not going to be easy, she thought. But it was possible.

“Haven’t you felt my absence during the night? Haven’t you missed me?”

“You certainly haven’t missed anything.”

She got up and embraced him. He only let her do it.

“Don’t hate me. If you’re giving me the chance to come back, give it to me completely.” She wanted to kiss him. He moved his lips away. He didn’t want to look at her. She stood waiting for some response. Finally he spoke.

“I don’t want to sleep with you.”

“That’s fine. I’ll stay in the little room.”

“No.”

“Then where?” For the first time she couldn’t guess what he was thinking.

“I want you to sleep in the bedroom. But not on the bed.”

“Where then?”

“On the floor.”

She took a deep breath. Yes. It was going to be work.

“That’s O.K.” she said. “May I take a shower?”

In silence he let her know that was alright. She gave him a kiss before going up:

“Thank you for the sandwich.”

He started to climb after her, but then it occurred to him that he needed to be alone, to think. He shut off the light, sank again into the easy chair in the living room. From there he could hear when she opened the bathroom door, when she closed it. When she opened it again, fifteen minutes later.

He sat for a long time in the dark, asking himself what was going to happen now, what everyone would say when they found out. The neighbors, his fellow workers, his family… They would say he was an idiot for taking her back. But there was still time: he could still throw her out. No. Not without making her pay. Not without making her suffer for the days and nights that she spent being happy with the other guy. He imagined her sleeping on the floor and felt satisfied. He went to the kitchen for a drink of water and then up to the bedroom. He turned on the light, enjoying the knowledge that he could be disturbing her. She was sleeping between the bed and the closet, with all her clothes on, in the fetal position. He contemplated her a moment, comfortable and contented in his clean pajamas. He shut off the light and got under the covers. He rejoiced in having flannel sheets on this cold night. Nevertheless he couldn’t sleep: he listened attentively to her breathing, her movements.

They needed to talk. But how to tell her, how to begin if she didn’t begin.

He went to the bathroom, making as much noise as possible, to see if she would say something.

But she didn’t even seem to wake up.

He yanked the door open.

She only changed position.

He got up again. Washed his hands.

He went to the kitchen for a drink of water.

He came back to slam the door.

He tried to get comfortable in the bed.

She tried to get comfortable on the floor.

He loudly cleared his throat.

He went to pee.

He returned.

She began to cry.

But not for him. For the other man.

And so it went all night long.

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THE AD

“So then, let’s buy a Flash…?” Andrea suggested.

“O.K.,” responded Petru, scratching his head beneath his black cap.

They were seated on a bench at the entrance to the University of

Oradea in Transylvania. It was October and students had already begun wearing winter clothes: wool coats, long scarves, knit caps. The gardens glistened, covered in autumn leaves, and an opaque fog blurred the distances.

Hoisting their backpacks, the two young people walked away from campus and went into a convenience store. They bought the Flash: classified ads. Andrea also got a pack of Carpati cigarettes and a bottle of sparkling water. They returned to their bench and sat down to read the ads. Andrea wanted to look directly at the apartment listings, but Petru liked to read the ads for second hand computers first. He wasn’t planning to buy one yet, but wanted to keep abreast of the prices.

They’d been together for almost six months and thought it was time to move in together. Besides, neither of them was happy with where they were living. Andrea had an apartment with two other students in a multi-family building that dated from the socialist era: no living or dining room, just a kitchen, bath and two bedrooms. Andrea shared the biggest bedroom with a girl from Kosovo who was studying dentistry. She was always studying and Andrea never felt free to turn on the TV or listen to music.

Petru lived in the same kind of building with four roommates. Far from the university, it was in a gang-ridden, working class neighborhood and he was tired of having to take a bus and then a trolley to get to school, spending half an hour each way. Besides, the heat didn’t work well and was expensive because it didn’t come from the Central, so they only turned it on for a while at night.

“They want a lot of money,” he commented, discouraged, after he’d looked at the apartment ads.

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Andrea took the paper and began to review them also, while she smoked. Before arriving at the same conclusion as Petru, she glanced at a section called “Friends.” There, among the offers of a “gentleman without vices, of good character, worker,” and “a lady of ample bust, well conserved,” she found an ad.

“Look at this!” she said, exhaling a mouthful of blue smoke that quickly blended with the fog. “Gentleman of very advanced years, without family, sick, seeks person or couple to keep him company and perform simple care duties. In exchange, he offers the second floor of the house, and the property on his death. 0670-5383775, nights.” “What do you think?”

The boy thought for a bit. He grimaced: “Live with someone else?”

“We do now, Petru.”

“But people our age.”

“So?”

“I don’t know. I don’t like the idea of having to take care of a sick person.”

“But it says here that it would only be light caretaking. Besides, in the end we’d have the house, do you understand? We’d have our own house without having spent anything.”

“And what if one day we break up?”

“Well, then one of us keeps the property and gives the other half of its value. Does that sound fair?”

Petru still hesitated. The sun came out a bit, without warmth, giving the fog a silky luster, and then it disappeared.

“We have from now until tonight to think about it,” Andrea insisted. “But I think that we should call and make an appointment. If we don’t want to go, we can forget the whole thing.”

“Alright.”

They got up and walked to the university library. The house was in a dark, neglected neighborhood inhabited by gypsies and old pensioners. Nevertheless it was pleasant: there was little auto traffic, the sidewalks were bordered by tall shade trees, and the houses, although shabby, retained the style of better days.

It was seven p.m. when the young pair pushed open the garden gate and entered the yard. They could see no light in the house. The plants looked as if no one had paid attention to them in a long time. On the branch of a dead peach tree, an owl kept watch.

Before they could knock, a voice from inside said, “Come in.” Someone must have seen them from the window.

The moment they entered, Andrea became depressed: the smell of enclosed air, antiques, and medicines. The only window was covered with a heavy curtain, so that not even the weak glow of the street light could enter. The room was softly illuminated by a gas lamp. Petru noticed none of this; he was focused on examining the state of the walls and roof, the doors, the pipes…Wasn’t there heat? It felt cold inside. They didn’t take off their coats.

“We called a while ago,” explained Andrea.

“Yes, I know. Sit down,” the masculine voice, fatigued but still agreeable, came from an old man watching them from an armchair, with a sheepskin rug over his legs. “Can I offer you something to drink? Tea?”

He was already making efforts to get up, but Andrea stopped him. “Please don’t bother.” She had realized he wasn’t a normal human being: he had a horrible color, like raw fish, and between his wrinkled lips protruded two fangs, one of gold, the other normal, but with its point broken.

The floor was covered with rug remnants of various colors and textures, one on top of the other, in an attempt to keep some warmth in the room. And by the armchair where the old man sat, there was a shelf with some plastic toys, a box of crackers, a pair of hand-painted plates with scenes of shepherds in love, a mechanical watch…The old man began to cough, startling a bird that began circling the dim room looking for a way out.

“It must have come in with you,” accused the old man, when he was able to speak again.

“I didn’t see it,” Andrea protested.

“Neither did I.”

“Help me get it out. I don’t want it to die here.” As he was saying this, the old man got up and opened the window. The cold of the night wafted in, making him cough once more. “There’s a broom behind the door. Help me get the bird out.”

Petru took the broom and began to chase the bird, which fluttered its wings in fear. Andrea looked at it with anguish, suffering. She wanted to go about it more carefully, but Petru, on the contrary, tried to rush in order to be able to shut the window as soon as possible so the old man wouldn’t have another coughing fit. He jumped from one side to the other swinging the broom and the bird shrieked and flew into the walls, until at last it found the open window and went out.

Regaining calm, the old man returned to his place and covered his legs again with the sheepskin rug:

“You seem like decent young people. Do you like the house? Do you want to see it? Go look at it. I’ll wait for you here. Take the lamp.”

Andrea was going to decline, but Petru got up immediately. “I’d like to see upstairs.”

“Go, both of you. But I warn you—since I don’t go up there, everything’s a mess. You would have to clean.”

“Let’s go,” Petru said to Andrea, who remained seated.

“You go. I’ll stay to keep the gentleman company.”

“You go too, young lady. You should see the house.”

The old man seemed to take it for granted that they were going to stay. But Andrea felt more anguished every moment, as if something were pressing on her chest and wouldn’t let her breathe. She followed Petru, not because she wanted to see anything, but to be able to tell him that they should go.

“Wait,” he said. “Look at this room. It could be my study.”

“Let’s go,” Andrea said urgently.

“Why?”

“Haven’t you realized?”

Petru didn’t answer. He waited for her to explain.

“You haven’t realized?” Andrea repeated. “This man is a vampire!”

“And what? You’re afraid?”

“It’s not that. You don’t understand. Don’t you see? There are already almost no vampires left in Transylvania. He has to be the last. And he’s going to die!”

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Petru remembered an article he’d read some time ago about the extinction of vampires throughout the Carpathian mountain range. The persecution began in the socialism era, when vampire properties were confiscated and they were forced to work. Without exception, they refused to do so, demonstrating that they were the last dregs of a decadent aristocracy that had lived on the blood of the workers. A special agency was created to track them down. Some were executed without a trial, but as the Ceausescu government thought silver bullets were a ridiculous luxury, all the rest were sent to work camps in Siberia. Some few survived, hiding. People protected them: they were a national symbol and the last vestige of the past greatness of Transylvania. But the process of extinction couldn’t be reversed; after the regime change, factors as diverse as pollution and global warming—with the consequent shortening of mating seasons—took charge of finishing the job. But the principal cause, a consequence of the new democratic thinking, was the criminalization of their feeding habits. Losing access to human blood, the source of their eternal youth, vampires began to age like ordinary people. A special commission of the European Union began investigating alternative food sources, but so far there had been no results.

“He’s going to die,” repeated Andrea with helpless grief.

“Well, that’s what we came for, isn’t it? To take care of him and then—well, then the house will be ours. He’s the one who proposed the idea.”

“Let’s go, now. Please!”

Andrea rushed down the stairs and out into the street. She didn’t feel capable of saying goodbye to the vampire. Petru, who had no choice but to follow her, stopped an instant in the living room to say, “Thank you, sir. Goodbye.”

In the street he asked Andrea, who was smoking again:

“What’s going on? Why did you leave like that?”

“You don’t understand, do you?” she responded. There was enormous sadness in her eyes.

“What should I understand?”

“I couldn’t watch him die, Petru. Didn’t you see him? He’s nearly done. How long has he gone without drinking blood? And then the bird… how could you do something like that?

“What did I do?”

“It was terrified! Just like him. He has to be so afraid…”

“Andrea, we are missing an opportunity…”

But she couldn’t listen to him. She threw down the half-smoked cigarette and began to run down the sidewalk alone, toward the gloomy end of the street.

Petru began to walk after her, slowly. He didn’t want to run nor was he interested in catching up with her. He went to the bus stop, searched the posted schedule to see when the trolley would come by and consulted his watch. He would have to wait twelve minutes. Two diminuative gypsy girls were waiting also; one of them was neurotically searching for something in her patent leather bag. Near the bus stop was a run-down bar which neither Petru nor Andrea had noticed when they arrived. Petru imagined the vampire, many years ago, prowling there before dawn in search of drunks.

Taking the Flash out of his backpack, he went to stand under the only streetlight on the block and began to read the ads for second hand computers.

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THE VAMPIRE

For Socorro Venegas

My uncle Lorenzo Ferrán got the nickname “the Vampire” some ten years before I was born. That is, in the mid-50s. At the time he used Brylcreem on his hair and wore a pompadour—there was always a little black comb in his back pocket—and so, “the Vampire” fit. He would buff his shoes many times before going out, he shaved every day, and he always smelled of Jockey Club lavender.

I was never sure how he got his nickname. Maybe it was because he had the air of a Germán Robles when he appeared in that picture as Count Dracula, or maybe because he lived more at night than during the day. He would hang around the bordellos around the port, doing business, he would say, and that’s how it must have been. He had the three qualities that make a stud: he was good at dancing, drinking, and throwing punches. He was also good looking: tall, thin, with pale olive skin that never saw the sun and looked chronically sallow. He had a babyish expression, as if a part of the child in him had never been touched by the sordidness of his life. Now I am already a grown man, in rapid flight toward old age; he has died and there is no one to ask, but suddenly I seem to recall that someone—a friend of the family—told me, or told someone else in front of me, that that was why they called him the Vampire: he was handsome. It’s a typically feminine equation, I don’t know why. Maybe even women themselves can’t explain it, but it’s very common for their idea of masculine beauty to have something of the vampiresque.

However it happened, when I found out about my uncle Lorenzo’s nickname, I was already fully six years old. I had seen all the pictures of El Santo, Blue Demon and Jorge Rivero, the ones with Viruta and Capulín, and the ones with Chabelo, and I knew what a vampire was. When you’re a kid, it doesn’t occur to you that nicknames can come from a metaphor, a figure of speech, or the exaggeration of some particular feature. For me, the fact that the whole town called my uncle the Vampire meant he really was one. And he took it upon himself to feed the misunderstanding. I remember one day, as a game, I tried to frighten him with a crucifix, and he played along, pretending I was making him suffer horribly. He covered his face with his hands and writhed, making the most theatrical screams. Then, another time, he gave me a silver bullet; that is, a plated bullet I believed was silver. He said to me, “Guard it well, Shorty, where no one can find it because, with this, they can kill me.” At that moment I wondered why it wouldn’t be better to throw it in the sea, where no one could find it, but I didn’t say anything and kept my promise. I still have the little bullet in my desk drawer.

Ours was a small town on the coast where doors stayed open all day, letting the breeze through until we went to sleep at night, exchanging our hammocks for beds.

The Vampire—and every time I call him that I would like the reader to imagine a tropical vampire, a blend of Dracula and Chanoc—lived on the same block with us, in a small house he had inherited from my grandfather. There he lived with his two women who were, to make the scandal worse for the family, sisters. They were waitresses in the bar near the fishermen’s wharf. Their names were Myrna and Myrtha—and though their names sounded similar, their personalities were not.

Myrna was a bottle-blonde, and curvy, or “frondosa,” as we would say there. She had fat arms with big vaccination scars and the vocabulary of a stevedore with which she made any man who dared offer her a compliment blush. Oh yes, she had a great sense of humor. She told dirty jokes, so the women criticized and stayed away from her, but the men liked her a lot.

Myrtha was two years younger, but she looked ten years younger. In contrast to her sister, she was small and skinny, as if she had not yet become a woman. She didn’t put much effort into her appearance. She wore her hair short and though she smiled a lot and she had the sweet eyes of a pregnant cow, there was something strange about her expression. Once you started to talk to her, you realized why: the poor thing was a born idiot. Well, almost an idiot. The reader should not imagine her drooling. It’s just that she was dim-witted. Well, trying to understand my uncle, I tell you, this is precisely why she was pretty: in this world of sailors’ bars where he was surrounded by women, only she who knew not what she did had the enchantment of unblemished innocence. And my uncle, like all libertines full of nostalgia for innocence, could not fail to fall under this spell.

The girl knew nothing; she could not imagine the havoc she caused with her gaze of a teenage drug addict. She would listen to the Vampire’s sweet-talk, receiving the stars that he plucked from the sky just for her, and smile. And the more she smiled, the more Lorenzo Ferrán desired her. None of this went past Myrna, and it never ceased to surprise her, accustomed as she was to being desired. Men always preferred her over her retarded sister. And whether because her woman’s pride had been stung or because, in truth, she liked this man, she started to use her wiles to take him from Mrytha. When she realized this would not be possible, she sat down with him at table in the bar, served him a beer on the house, and spoke frankly and—this was unusual—without dirty words. She said, as if stating an incontrovertible fact: “My sister is not well. She can’t be alone with a man because she has no idea how to defend herself. That is why we can’t be separated. I promised my mother—may she rest in peace—that wherever one of us goes, we both go.”

The Vampire thought this was a strange idea but it didn’t disagree with him. After all, it went along with his way of thinking. He used to say, “He who eats the good and the bad eats double.” And so he ate double and a lot because, as I have said, Myrna had a figure that tended toward opulence and softness. Of course, they kept on working in the bar. My poor uncle could not have supported the both of them with what he got from his “businesses.” Some people have the notion that those who work at night make a lot of money, but it’s not so. The night is a woman: generous today; tomorrow, who knows.

As you might imagine, Myrna and Myrtha’s arrival in my uncle’s life caused the family to distance itself from him. I was the only one who went on visiting him in this house that began to fill up with photos of singers and stuffed toys. I was almost ten years old and these women didn’t bother me. On the contrary: I loved to listen to them talk and I learned dirty words. Even the innocent one knew them, as much as she knew how to say them.

The three of them were happy for a couple of years. Sometimes the Vampire would go alone to the shops downtown and he would buy clothes his women would like: two dresses, one for each, and identical, so they wouldn’t fight. It seemed to please him enormously that in front of the Del Río Hotel, usually full of tourists, people would see him taking the fresh afternoon air, peacocking along the seaside promenade, arm-in-arm with his two women, in his ivory suit and lilac scarf.

One day he bought them Chinese bathrobes made of red satin, with a gold dragon on the back. They liked them so much they went out into the street in them, as if they were dressed: Myrtha because she didn’t understand what they were; Myrna, because it seemed to her something very sensual. For her, sensuality was the source of feminine power, maybe because it was difficult to find another quality.

But Lorenzo Ferrán seemed to have enough of that. In certain special moments, he would take Myrtha’s hand and bring her there to be alone with her. And if he couldn’t, he would make do with pausing to contemplate her, rapt, gone, as if there were no one else around and she were asleep.

One night, as the four of us were walking along the promenade, after having dinner at the arcade, the retarded girl said, “The stars!”

I remember that my uncle stopped to look at her as if, with these two words, Myrtha had concentrated the poetry of the whole world. Myrna and I started to laugh, making fun of them. It didn’t occur to me that behind that woman’s laugh there boiled bitter jealousy.

One morning my uncle turned up dead in the garbage behind the fishmarket. He had been poisoned and then killed again: a sharpened stick driven through his chest. The police didn’t have to do much investigation: he had been killed by one of his two women. Myrtha, the moron.

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Many years have gone by. In the family we have talked over what happened endlessly, and having come to one conclusion, we then come to another. I think the Vampire’s preference for Myrtha was the cause of his downfall. Because if he was ever in love with a woman, it was her. Her, among all the ones he could have had. Why? What was it about this poor enfeebled woman that fascinated him? Was it some kind of perversion, or simply that he could see in her a quality invisible to everyone else? Myrna—she was sharp—did not overlook this preference; she started to detest the Vampire. She hated him because she felt dismissed as a woman, but above all, for the unacceptable fact that it was her retarded sister whom he preferred. For her, this was something beyond all logic.

Without realizing it, I gave her the idea of a channel for her loathing. I was at the age when I discovered the pleasure of reading and, more to play along with my uncle’s game than anything else, I started to devour whatever printed material there was on the subject of vampires. Myrna, who at first used to make fun of me for spending my time with books instead of going out to play, ended up becoming interested, that is to say, she ended up seeing something practical in my reading books. She was nicer to me when I came to her house. She would sit me at the table, turn down the volume on her Los Angeles Negros record, and serve me a tall glass of Coca Cola. Then she would call her sister so I could entertain her—so she said—by telling her about my reading.

“So,” she would ask me, “vampires are beings of the Devil, right? They hate Jesus Christ.”

“Well,” I would answer, trying to water down such a strong assertion, “let’s say they’re afraid of the crucifix.”

“And how it is it you have to kill them so they can never come back to life?”

My father used to say, the evil are blind to sin, as the poor are blind to ignorance, and the jerks, to vanity. I turned into one of the latter. Because I felt so erudite in Myrna’s eyes, I did not recognize that she was using me to lead her sister down the path to evil.

Of all the members of the family, I was the one who cried the most when my uncle died—even though I had not yet been able to glimpse my own participation. Myrtha was put in an insane asylum, but only for a few years. They say that later they let her out and she ended up wandering the streets, surviving as a beggar. No one suspected anything of Myrna. Her version of what happened was completely convincing, and it was the only one. She married an old man who had several stalls in the fishmarket: a lot of money. They say, in the end, she got religion.

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