On the Animal in Man: Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Karen Russell leaves the Florida swamp behind in her new collection of short stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, traveling to Italy, Wisconsin, and possibly purgatory. The settings are more geographically exotic, but Russell’s dark humor and ability to infuse the everyday with the fantastic carry over from her wonderful debut collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and her Pulitzer–nominated novel, Swamplandia!
The eight stories in Vampires reveal the human in the monstrous, the animal in the man. In the title story, the power of mythology and folk stories influences the belief and action of mortal and monster alike, in which an aging vampire fights both a fear of flying and the lost thrill of being feared. Throughout the collection, twice humans become animals (three times if you count the eponymous vampires turning into bats). In “Reeling for the Empire,” Japanese girls are transformed into giant silkworms housed in a squalid factory where a machine pulls the precious thread from their furry bodies. In “The Barn at the End of Our Term” (which is quite possibly the weirdest story I have ever read), eleven presidents of the United States awake in the bodies of horses and find themselves at the same barn in a strange purgatory. The protagonist, Rutherford B. Hayes, becomes tragically convinced that a blind sheep is his reincarnated wife. Only Karen Russell could manage heartbreak in a story about president horses in purgatory.
The final two stories are the only ones that contain no central animal element; instead, they deal specifically with human-inflicted and -suffered pain. In “The New Veterans,” a massage therapist begins to take on the violent memories commemorated in a new patient’s strange, shifting tattoo of the day the IED blew in Iraq. In the final story, a group of Jersey boys are haunted by a scarecrow with the face of a disappeared classmate they once tormented. Characters find themselves taking on the pain or memory of someone suffering very un-fantastic, human pain – post-traumatic stress of war, and grade school bullying – and becoming sleepless and destroyed by the transference. Man has become the monster, the horrific is in our own minds, the result of our own actions.
The gothic twists and touches expose the humanity in these characters, vampire or teenage boy or reincarnated horse president. Vampires in the Lemon Grove contains the dark humor and fantastic elements Russell excels at, but is her boldest, most daring, mature book yet.
In October, the men and women of Sorrento harvest the primofiore, or “first flowering fruit,” the most succulent lemons; in March, the yellow bianchetti ripen, followed in June by the green verdelli. In every season you can find me sitting at my bench, watching them fall. Only one or two lemons tumble from the branches each hour, but I’ve been sitting here so long their falls seem contiguous, close as raindrops. My wife has no patience for this sort of meditation. “Jesus Christ, Clyde,” she says. “You need a hobby.”
Most people mistake me for a small, kindly Italian grandfather, a nonno. I have an old nonno’s coloring, the dark walnut stain peculiar to southern Italians, a tan that won’t fade until I die (which I never will). I wear a neat periwinkle shirt, a canvas sunhat, black suspenders that sag at my chest. My loafers are battered but always polished. The few visitors to the lemon grove who notice me smile blankly into my raisin face and catch the whiff of some sort of tragedy; they whisper that I am a widower, or an old man who has survived his children. They never guess that I am a vampire.
Santa Francesca’s Lemon Grove, where I spend my days and nights, was part of a Jesuit convent in the 1800s. Today it’s privately owned by the Alberti family, the prices are excessive, and the locals know to buy their lemons elsewhere. In summers a teenage girl named Fila mans a wooden stall at the back of the grove. She’s painfully thin, with heavy black bangs. I can tell by the careful way she saves the best lemons for me, slyly kicking them under my bench, that she knows I am a monster. Sometimes she’ll smile vacantly in my direction, but she never gives me any trouble. And because of her benevolent indifference to me, I feel a swell of love for the girl.
Fila makes the lemonade and monitors the hot dog machine, watching the meat rotate on wire spigots. I’m fascinated by this machine. The Italian name for it translates as “carousel of beef.” Who would have guessed at such a device two hundred years ago? Back then we were all preoccupied with visions of apocalypse; Santa Francesca, the foundress of this very grove, gouged out her eyes while dictating premonitions of fire. What a shame, I often think, that she foresaw only the end times, never hot dogs.
A sign posted just outside the grove reads:
Santa Francesca’s Limonata—
THE MOST REFRISHING DRANK ON THE PLENET!!
Every day, tourists from Wales and Germany and America are ferried over from cruise ships to the base of these cliffs. They ride the funicular up here to visit the grove, to eat “heat dogs” with speckly brown mustard and sip lemon ices. They snap photographs of the Alberti brothers, Benny and Luciano, teenage twins who cling to the trees’ wooden supports and make a grudging show of harvesting lemons, who spear each other with trowels and refer to the tourist women as “vaginas” in Italian slang. “Buona sera, vaginas!” they cry from the trees. I think the tourists are getting stupider. None of them speak Italian anymore, and these new women seem deaf to aggression. Often I fantasize about flashing my fangs at the brothers, just to keep them in line.
As I said, the tourists usually ignore me; perhaps it’s the dominoes. A few years back, I bought a battered red set from Benny, a prop piece, and this makes me invisible, sufficiently banal to be hidden in plain sight. I have no real interest in the game; I mostly stack the pieces into little houses and corrals.
At sunset, the tourists all around begin to shout. “Look! Up there!” It’s time for the path of I Pipistrelli Impazziti—the descent of the bats.
They flow from cliffs that glow like pale chalk, expelled from caves in the seeming billions. Their drop is steep and vertical, a black hail. Sometimes a change in weather sucks a bat beyond the lemon trees and into the turquoise sea. It’s three hundred feet to the lemon grove, six hundred feet to the churning foam of the Tyrrhenian. At the precipice, they soar upward and crash around the green tops of the trees.
“Oh!” the tourists shriek, delighted, ducking their heads.
Up close, the bats’ spread wings are alien membranes—fragile, like something internal flipped out. The waning sun washes their bodies a dusky red. They have wrinkled black faces, these bats, tiny, like gargoyles or angry grandfathers. They have teeth like mine.
Tonight, one of the tourists, a Texan lady with a big strawberry red updo, has successfully captured a bat in her hair, simultaneously crying real tears and howling: “TAKE THE GODDAMN PICTURE, Sarah!”
I stare ahead at a fixed point above the trees and light a cigarette. My bent spine goes rigid. Mortal terror always trips some old wire that leaves me sad and irritable. It will be whole minutes now before everybody stops screaming.
The moon is a muted shade of orange. Twin disks of light burn in the sky and the sea. I scan the darker indents in the skyline, the cloudless spots that I know to be caves. I check my watch again. It’s eight o’clock, and all the bats have disappeared into the interior branches. Where is Magreb? My fangs are throbbing, but I won’t start without her.
I once pictured time as a black magnifying glass and myself as a microscopic flightless insect trapped in that circle of night. But then Magreb came along, and eternity ceased to frighten me. Suddenly each moment followed its antecedent in a neat chain, moments we filled with each other.
I watch a single bat falling from the cliffs, dropping like a stone: headfirst, motionless, dizzying to witness.
I close my eyes. I press my palms flat against the picnic table and tense the muscles of my neck.
Pull UP. I tense until my temples pulse, until little black-and-red stars flutter behind my eyelids.
“You can look now.”
Magreb is sitting on the bench, blinking her bright pumpkin eyes. “You weren’t even watching. If you saw me coming down, you’d know you have nothing to worry about.” I try to smile at her and find I can’t. My own eyes feel like ice cubes.
“It’s stupid to go so fast.” I don’t look at her. “That easterly could knock you over the rocks.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m an excellent flier.”
She’s right. Magreb can shape-shift midair, much more smoothly than I ever could. Even back in the 1850s, when I used to transmute into a bat two, three times a night, my metamorphosis was a shy, halting process.
“Look!” she says, triumphant, mocking. “You’re still trembling!”
I look down at my hands, angry to realize it’s true.
Magreb roots through the tall, black blades of grass. “It’s late, Clyde; where’s my lemon?”
I pluck a soft, round lemon from the grass, a summer moon, and hand it to her. The verdelli I have chosen is perfect, flawless. She looks at it with distaste and makes a big show of brushing off a marching ribbon of ants.
“A toast!” I say.
“A toast,” Magreb replies, with the rote enthusiasm of a Christian saying grace. We lift the lemons and swing them to our faces. We plunge our fangs, piercing the skin, and emit a long, united hiss: “Aaah!”
Over the years, Magreb and I have tried everything—fangs in apples, fangs in rubber balls. We have lived everywhere: Tunis, Laos, Cincinnati, Salamanca. We spent our honeymoon hopping continents, hunting liquid chimeras: mint tea in Fez, coconut slurries in Oahu, jet-black coffee in Bogotá, jackal’s milk in Dakar, Cherry Coke floats in rural Alabama, a thousand beverages purported to have magical quenching properties. We went thirsty in every region of the globe before finding our oasis here, in the blue boot of Italy, at this dead nun’s lemonade stand. It’s only these lemons that give us any relief.
When we first landed in Sorrento I was skeptical. The pitcher of lemonade we ordered looked cloudy and adulterated. Sugar clumped at the bottom. I took a gulp, and a whole small lemon lodged in my mouth; there is no word sufficiently lovely for the first taste, the first feeling of my fangs in that lemon. It was bracingly sour, with a delicate hint of ocean salt. After an initial prickling—a sort of chemical effervescence along my gums—a soothing blankness traveled from the tip of each fang to my fevered brain. These lemons are a vampire’s analgesic. If you have been thirsty for a long time, if you have been suffering, then the absence of those two feelings—however brief—becomes a kind of heaven. I breathed deeply through my nostrils. My throbbing fangs were still.
By daybreak, the numbness had begun to wear off. The lemons relieve our thirst without ending it, like a drink we can hold in our mouths but never swallow. Eventually the original hunger returns. I have tried to be very good, very correct and conscientious about not confusing this original hunger with the thing I feel for Magreb.
I can’t joke about my early years on the blood, can’t even think about them without guilt and acidic embarrassment. Unlike Magreb, who has never had a sip of the stuff, I listened to the village gossips and believed every rumor, internalized every report of corrupted bodies and boiled blood. Vampires were the favorite undead of the Enlightenment, and as a young boy I aped the diction and mannerisms I read about in books: Vlad the Impaler, Count Heinrich the Despoiler, Goethe’s bloodsucking bride of Corinth. I eavesdropped on the terrified prayers of an old woman in a cemetery, begging God to protect her from . . . me. I felt a dislocation then, a spreading numbness, as if I were invisible or already dead. After that, I did only what the stories suggested, beginning with that old woman’s blood. I slept in coffins, in black cedar boxes, and woke every night with a fierce headache. I was famished, perennially dizzy. I had unspeakable dreams about the sun.
In practice I was no suave viscount, just a teenager in a red velvet cape, awkward and voracious. I wanted to touch the edges of my life—the same instinct, I think, that inspires young mortals to flip tractors and enlist in foreign wars. One night I skulked into a late Mass with some vague plan to defeat eternity. At the back of the nave, I tossed my mousy curls, rolled my eyes heavenward, and then plunged my entire arm into the bronze pail of holy water. Death would be painful, probably, but I didn’t care about pain. I wanted to overturn my sentence. It was working; I could feel the burn beginning to spread. Actually, it was more like an itch, but I was sure the burning would start any second. I slid into a pew, snug in my misery, and waited for my body to turn to ash.
By sunrise, I’d developed a rash between my eyebrows, a little late-flowering acne, but was otherwise fine, and I understood I truly was immortal. At that moment I yielded all discrimination; I bit anyone kind or slow enough to let me get close: men, women, even some older boys and girls. The littlest children I left alone, very proud at the time of this one scruple. I’d read stories about Hungarian vampirs who drank the blood of orphan girls, and mentioned this to Magreb early on, hoping to impress her with my decency. Not children! she wept.
She wept for a day and a half.
Our first date was in Cementerio de Colón, if I can call a chance meeting between headstones a date. I had been stalking her, following her swishing hips as she took a shortcut through the cemetery grass. She wore her hair in a low, snaky braid that was coming unraveled. When I was near enough to touch her trailing ribbon she whipped around. “Are you following me?” she asked, annoyed, not scared. She regarded my face with the contempt of a woman confronting the town drunk. “Oh,” she said, “your teeth . . .”
And then she grinned. Magreb was the first and only other vampire I’d ever met. We bared our fangs over a tombstone and recognized each other. There is a loneliness that must be particular to monsters, I think, the feeling that each is the only child of a species. And now that loneliness was over.
Our first date lasted all night. Magreb’s talk seemed to lunge forward like a train without a conductor; I suspect even she didn’t know what she was saying. I certainly wasn’t paying attention, staring dopily at her fangs, and then I heard her ask: “So, when did you figure out that the blood does nothing?”
At the time of this conversation, I was edging on 130. I had never gone a day since early childhood without drinking several pints of blood. The blood does nothing? My forehead burned and burned.
“Didn’t you think it suspicious that you had a heartbeat?” she asked me. “That you had a reflection in water?”
When I didn’t answer, Magreb went on, “Every time I saw my own face in a mirror, I knew I wasn’t any of those ridiculous things, a bloodsucker, a sanguina. You know?”
“Sure,” I said, nodding. For me, mirrors had the opposite effect: I saw a mouth ringed in black blood. I saw the pale son of the villagers’ fears.
Those initial days with Magreb nearly undid me. At first my euphoria was sharp and blinding, all my thoughts spooling into a single blue thread of relief—The blood does nothing! I don’t have to drink the blood!— but when that subsided, I found I had nothing left. If we didn’t have to drink the blood, then what on earth were these fangs for?
Sometimes I think she preferred me then: I was like her own child, raw and amazed. We smashed my coffin with an ax and spent the night at a hotel. I lay there wide-eyed in the big bed, my heart thudding like a fish tail against the floor of a boat.
“You’re really sure?” I whispered to her. “I don’t have to sleep in a coffin? I don’t have to sleep through the day?” She had already drifted off.
A few months later, she suggested a picnic.
“But the sun.”
Magreb shook her head. “You poor thing, believing all that garbage.”
By this time we’d found a dirt cellar in which to live in Western Australia, where the sun burned through the clouds like dining lace. That sun ate lakes, rising out of dead volcanoes at dawn, triple the size of a harvest moon and skull- white, a grass-scorcher. Go ahead, try to walk into that sun when you’ve been told your bones are tinder.
I stared at the warped planks of the trapdoor above us, the copper ladder that led rung by rung to the bright world beyond. Time fell away from me and I was a child again, afraid, afraid. Magreb rested her hand on the small of my back. “You can do it,” she said, nudging me gently. I took a deep breath and hunched my shoulders, my scalp grazing the cellar door, my hair soaked through with sweat. I focused my thoughts to still the tremors, lest my fangs slice the inside of my mouth, and turned my face away from Magreb.
I pushed up and felt the wood give way. Light exploded through the cellar. My pupils shrank to dots.
Outside, the whole world was on fire. Mute explosions rocked the scrubby forest, motes of light burning like silent rockets. The sun fell through the eucalyptus and Australian pines in bright red bars. I pulled myself out onto my belly, balled up in the soil, and screamed for mercy until I’d exhausted myself. Then I opened one watery eye and took a long look around. The sun wasn’t fatal! It was just uncomfortable, making my eyes itch and water and inducing a sneezing attack.
After that, and for the whole of our next thirty years together, I watched the auroral colors and waited to feel anything but terror. Fingers of light spread across the gray sea toward me, and I couldn’t see these colors as beautiful. The sky I lived under was a hideous, lethal mix of orange and pink, a physical deformity. By the 1950s we were living in a Cincinnati suburb; and as the day’s first light hit the kitchen windows, I’d press my face against the
linoleum and gibber my terror into the cracks.
“Sooo,” Magreb would say, “I can tell you’re not a morning person.” Then she’d sit on the porch swing and rock with me, patting my hand.
“What’s wrong, Clyde?”
I shook my head. This was a new sadness, difficult to express. My bloodlust was undiminished but now the blood wouldn’t fix it.
“It never fixed it,” Magreb reminded me, and I wished she would please stop talking.
That cluster of years was a very confusing period. Mostly I felt grateful, aboveground feelings. I was in love. For a vampire, my life was very normal. Instead of stalking prostitutes, I went on long bicycle rides with Magreb. We visited botanical gardens and rowed in boats. In a short time, my face had gone from lithium white to the color of milky coffee. Yet sometimes, especially at high noon, I’d study Magreb’s face with a hot, illogical hatred, each pore opening up to swallow me. You’ve ruined my life, I’d think. To correct for her power over my mind I tried to fantasize about mortal women, their wild eyes and bare swan necks; I couldn’t do it, not anymore—an eternity of vague female smiles
eclipsed by Magreb’s tiny razor fangs. Two gray tabs against her lower lip.
But like I said, I was mostly happy. I was making a kind of progress.
One night, children wearing necklaces of garlic bulbs arrived giggling at our door. It was Halloween; they were vampire hunters. The smell of garlic blasted through the mail slot, along with their voices: “Trick or treat!” In the old days, I would have cowered from these children. I would have run downstairs to barricade myself in my coffin. But that night, I pulled on an undershirt and opened the door. I stood in a square of green light in my boxer shorts hefting a bag of Tootsie Pops, a small victory over the old fear.
“Mister, you okay?”
I blinked down at a little blond child and then saw that my two hands were shaking violently, soundlessly, like old friends wishing not to burden me with their troubles. I dropped the candies into the children’s bags, thinking: You small mortals don’t realize the power of your stories.
We were downing strawberry velvet cocktails on the Seine when something inside me changed. Thirty years. Eleven thousand dawns. That’s how long it took for me to believe the sun wouldn’t kill me.
“Want to go see a museum or something? We’re in Paris, after all.”
We walked over a busy pedestrian bridge in a flood of light, and my heart was in my throat. Without any discussion, I understood that Magreb was my wife.
Because I love her, my hunger pangs have gradually mellowed into a comfortable despair. Sometimes I think of us as two holes cleaved together, two twin hungers. Our bellies growl at each other like companionable dogs. I love the sound, assuring me we’re equals in our thirst. We bump our fangs and feel like we’re coming up against the same hard truth.
Human marriages amuse me: the brevity of the commitment and all the ceremony that surrounds it, the calla lilies, the veiled mother-in-laws like lilac spiders, the tears and earnest toasts. Till death do us part! Easy. These mortal couples need only keep each other in sight for fifty, sixty years.
Often I wonder to what extent a mortal’s love grows from the bedrock of his or her foreknowledge of death, love coiling like a green stem out of that blankness in a way I’ll never quite understand. And lately I’ve been having a terrible thought: Our love affair will end before the world does.
One day, without any preamble, Magreb flew up to the caves. She called over her furry, muscled shoulder that she just wanted to sleep for a while.
“What? Wait! What’s wrong?”
I’d caught her mid-shift, halfway between a wife and a bat.
“Don’t be so sensitive, Clyde! I’m just tired of this century, so very tired, maybe it’s the heat? I think I need a little rest . . .”
I assumed this was an experiment, like my cape, an old habit to which she was returning, and from the clumsy, ambivalent way she crashed around on the wind I understood I was supposed to follow her. Well, too bad. Magreb likes to say she freed me, disabused me of the old stories, but I gave up more than I intended: I can’t shudder myself out of this old man’s body. I can’t fly anymore.
Fila and I are alone. I press my dry lips together and shove dominoes around the table; they buckle like the cars of a tiny train.
“More lemonade, nonno?” She smiles. She leans from her waist and boldly touches my right fang, a thin string of hanging drool. “Looks like you’re thirsty.”
“Please,” I gesture at the bench. “Have a seat.”
Fila is seventeen now and has known about me for some time. She’s toying with the idea of telling her boss, weighing the sentence within her like a bullet in a gun: There is a vampire in our grove.
“You don’t believe me, Signore Alberti?” she’ll say, before taking him by the wrist and leading him to this bench, and I’ll choose that moment to rise up and bite him in his hog-thick neck. “Right through his stupid tie!” she says with a grin.
But this is just idle fantasy, she assures me. Fila is content to let me alone. “You remind me of my nonno,” she says approvingly, “you look very Italian.”
In fact, she wants to help me hide here. It gives her a warm feeling to do so, like helping her own fierce nonno do up the small buttons of his trousers, now too intricate a maneuver for his palsied hands. She worries about me, too. And she should: lately I’ve gotten sloppy, incontinent about my secrets. I’ve stopped polishing my shoes; I let the tip of one fang hang over my pink lip. “You must be more careful,” she reprimands. “There are tourists everywhere.”
I study her neck as she says this, her head rolling with the natural expressiveness of a girl. She checks to see if I am watching her collarbone, and I let her see that I am. I feel like a threat again.
Last night I went on a rampage. On my seventh lemon I found with a sort of drowsy despair that I couldn’t stop. I crawled around on all fours looking for the last bianchettis in the dewy grass: soft with rot, mildewed, sun-shriveled, blackened. Lemon skin bulging with tiny cellophane-green worms. Dirt smells, rain smells, all swirled through with the tart sting of decay.
In the morning, Magreb steps around the wreckage and doesn’t say a word.
“I came up with a new name,” I say, hoping to distract her. “Brandolino. What do you think?”
I have spent the last several years trying to choose an Italian name, and every day that I remain Clyde feels like a defeat. Our names are relics of the places we’ve been. “Clyde” is a souvenir from the California Gold Rush. I was callow and blood-crazed back then, and I saw my echo in the freckly youths panning along the Sacramento River. I used the name as a kind of bait. “Clyde” sounded innocuous, like someone a boy might get a malt beer with or follow into the woods.
Magreb chose her name in the Atlas Mountains for its etymology, the root word ghuroob, which means “to set” or “to be hidden.” “That’s what we’re looking for,” she tells me. “The setting place. Some final answer.” She won’t change her name until we find it.
She takes a lemon from her mouth, slides it down the length of her fangs, and places its shriveled core on the picnic table. When she finally speaks, her voice is so low the words are almost unintelligible.
“The lemons aren’t working, Clyde.”
But the lemons have never worked. At best, they give us eight hours of peace. We aren’t talking about the lemons.
“Longer than I’ve let on. I’m sorry.”
“Well, maybe it’s this crop. Those Alberti boys haven’t been fertilizing properly, maybe the primofiore will turn out better.”
Magreb fixes me with one fish-bright eye. “Clyde, I think it’s time for us to go.”
Wind blows the leaves apart. Lemons wink like a firmament of yellow stars, slowly ripening, and I can see the other, truer night behind them.
“Go where?” Our marriage, as I conceive it, is a commitment to starve together. “We’ve been resting here for decades. I think it’s time . . . what is that thing?”
I have been preparing a present for Magreb, for our anniversary, a “cave” of scavenged materials—newspaper and bottle glass and wooden beams from the lemon tree supports—so that she can sleep down here with me. I’ve smashed dozens of bottles of fruity beer to make stalactites. Looking at it now, though, I see the cave is very small. It looks like an umbrella mauled by a dog.
“That thing?” I say. “That’s nothing. I think it’s part of the hot dog machine.”
“Jesus. Did it catch on fire?”
“Yes. The girl threw it out yesterday.”
“Clyde.” Magreb shakes her head. “We never meant to stay here forever, did we? That was never the plan.”
“I didn’t know we had a plan,” I snap. “What if we’ve outlived our food supply? What if there’s nothing left for us to find?”
“You don’t really believe that.”
“Why can’t you just be grateful? Why can’t you be happy and admit defeat? Look at what we’ve found here!” I grab a lemon and wave it in her face.
“Good night, Clyde.”
I watch my wife fly up into the watery dawn, and again I feel the awful tension. In the flats of my feet, in my knobbed spine. Love has infected me with a muscular superstition that one body can do the work of another.
I consider taking the funicular, the ultimate degradation—worse than the dominoes, worse than an eternity of sucking cut lemons. All day I watch the cars ascend, and I’m reminded of those American fools who accompany their wives to the beach but refuse to wear bathing suits. I’ve seen them by the harbor, sulking in their trousers, panting through menthol cigarettes and pacing the dock while the women sea-bathe. They pretend they don’t mind when sweat darkens the armpits of their suits. When their wives swim out and leave them. When their wives are just a splash in the distance.
Tickets for the funicular are twenty lire. I sit at the bench and count as the cars go by.
That evening, I take Magreb on a date. I haven’t left the lemon grove in upward of two years, and blood roars in my ears as I stand and clutch at her like an old man. We’re going to the Thursday night show at an antique theater in a castle in the center of town. I want her to see that I’m happy to travel with her, so long as our destination is within walking distance.
A teenage usher in a vintage red jacket with puffed sleeves escorts us to our seats, his biceps manacled in clouds, threads loosening from the badge on his chest. I am jealous of the name there: GUGLIELMO.
The movie’s title is already scrolling across the black screen: SOMETHING CLANDESTINE IS HAPPENING IN THE CORN!
Magreb snorts. “That’s a pretty lousy name for a horror movie. It sounds like a student film.”
“Here’s your ticket,” I say. “I didn’t make the title up.”
It’s a vampire movie set in the Dust Bowl. Magreb expects a comedy, but the Dracula actor fills me with the sadness of an old photo album. An Okie has unwittingly fallen in love with the monster, whom she’s mistaken for a rich European creditor eager to pay off the mortgage on her family’s farm.
“That Okie,” says Magreb, “is an idiot.”
I turn my head miserably and there’s Fila, sitting two rows in front of us with a greasy young man. Benny Alberti. Her white neck is bent to the left, Benny’s lips affixed to it as she impassively sips a soda.
“Poor thing,” Magreb whispers, indicating the pigtailed actress. “She thinks he’s going to save her.”
Dracula shows his fangs, and the Okie flees through a cornfield. Cornstalks smack her face. “Help!” she screams to a sky full of crows. “He’s not actually from Europe!”
There is no music, only the girl’s breath and the fwap-fwap-fwap of the off-screen fan blades. Dracula’s mouth hangs wide as a sewer grate. His cape is curiously still.
The movie picture is frozen. The fwapping is emanating from the projection booth; it rises to a grinding r-r-r, followed by lyrical Italian cussing and silence and finally a tidal sigh. Magreb shifts in her seat.
“Let’s wait,” I say, seized with empathy for these two still figures on the screen, mutely pleading for repair. “They’ll fix it.”
People begin to file out of the theater, first in twos and threes and then in droves. “I’m tired, Clyde.”
“Don’t you want to know what happens?” My voice is more frantic than I intend.
“I already know what happens.”
“Don’t you leave now, Magreb. I’m telling you, they’re going to fix it. If you leave now, that’s it for us, I’ll never . . .”
Her voice is beautiful, like gravel underfoot: “I’m going to the caves.”
I’m alone in the theater. When I turn to exit, the picture is still frozen, the Okie’s blue dress floating over windless corn, Dracula’s mouth a hole in his white greasepaint.
Outside I see Fila standing in a clot of her friends, lit by the marquee. These kids wear too much makeup and clothes that move like colored oils. They all look rained on. I scowl at them and they scowl back, and then Fila crosses to me.
“Hey, you,” she says, grinning, breathless, so very close to my face. “Are you stalking somebody?”
My throat tightens.
“Guys!” Her eyes gleam. “Guys, come over and meet the vampire.”
But the kids are gone.
“Well! Some friends,” she says, then winks. “Leaving me alone, defenseless . . .”
“You want the old vampire to bite you, eh?” I hiss. “You want a story for your friends?”
Fila laughs. Her horror is a round, genuine thing, bouncing in both her black eyes. She smells like hard water and glycerin. The hum of her young life all around me makes it difficult to think. A bat filters my thoughts, opens its trembling lampshade wings.
Magreb. She’ll want to hear about this. How ridiculous, at my age, to find myself down this alley with a young girl: Fila powdering her neck, doing her hair up with little temptress pins, yanking me behind this Dumpster. “Can you imagine”—Magreb will laugh—“a teenager goading you to attack her! You’re still a menace, Clyde.”
I stare vacantly at a pale mole above the girl’s collarbone. Magreb, I think again, and I smile, and the smile feels like a muzzle stretched taut against my teeth. It seems my hand has tightened on the girl’s wrist, and I realize with surprise, as if from a great distance, that she is twisting away.
“Hey, nonno, come on now, what are you— ”
The girl’s head lolls against my shoulder like a sleepy child’s, then swings forward in a rag- doll circle. The starlight is white mercury compared to her blotted-out eyes. There’s a dark stain on my periwinkle shirt, and one suspender has snapped. I sit Fila’s body against the alley wall, watch it dim and stiffen. Spidery graffiti weaves over the brick behind her, and I scan for some answer contained there: GIOVANNA & FABIANO. VAFFANCULO! VAI IN CULO.
A scabby-furred creature, our only witness, arches its orange back against the Dumpster. If not for the lock I would ease the girl inside. I would climb in with her and let the red stench fill my nostrils, let the flies crawl into the red corners of my eyes. I am a monster again.
I ransack Fila’s pockets and find the key to the funicular office, careful not to look at her face. Then I’m walking, running for the lemon grove. I jimmy my way into the control room and turn the silver key, relieved to hear the engine roar to life. Locked, locked, every funicular car is locked, but then I find one with thick tape in Xs over a busted door. I dash after it and pull myself onto the cushion, quickly, because the cars are already moving. Even now, after what I’ve done, I am still unable to fly, still imprisoned in my wretched nonno’s body, reduced to using the mortals’ machinery to carry me up to find my wife. The box jounces and trembles. The chain pulls me into the heavens link by link.
My lips are soon chapped; I stare through a crack in the glass window. The box swings wildly in the wind. The sky is a deep blue vacuum. I can still smell the girl in the folds of my clothes.
The cave system at the top of the cliffs is vaster than I expected; and with their grandfather faces tucked away, the bats are anonymous as stones.
I walk beneath a chandelier of furry bodies, heartbeats wrapped in wings the color of rose petals or corn silk. Breath ripples through each of them, a tiny life in its translucent envelope.
Is she up here?
Has she left me?
(I will never find another vampire.)
I double back to the moonlit entrance that leads to the open air of the cliffs, the funicular cars. When I find Magreb, I’ll beg her to tell me what she dreams up here. I’ll tell her my waking dreams in the lemon grove: The mortal men and women floating serenely by in balloons freighted with the ballast of their deaths. Millions of balloons ride over a wide ocean, lives darkening the sky. Death is a dense powder cinched inside tiny sandbags, and in the dream I am given to understand that instead of a sandbag I have Magreb.
I make the bats’ descent in a cable car with no wings to spread, knocked around by the wind with a force that feels personal. I struggle to hold the door shut and look for the green speck of our grove.
The box is plunging now, far too quickly. It swings wide, and the igneous surface of the mountain fills the left window. The tufa shines like water, like a black, heat- bubbled river. For a dizzying instant I expect the rock to seep through the glass.
Each swing takes me higher than the last, a grinding pendulum that approaches a full revolution around the cable. I’m on my hands and knees on the car floor, seasick in the high air, pressing my face against the floor grate. I can see stars or boats burning there, and also a ribbon of white, a widening fissure. Air gushes through the cracks in the glass box. With a lurch of surprise, I realize that I could die.
What does Magreb see, if she is watching? Is she waking from a nightmare to see the line snap, the glass box plummet? From her inverted vantage, dangling from the roof of the cave, does the car seem to be sucked upward, rushing not toward the sea but into another sort of sky? To a black mouth open and foaming with stars?
I like to picture my wife like this: Magreb shuts her thin eyelids tighter. She digs her claws into the rock. Little clouds of dust plume around her toes as she swings upside down. She feels something growing inside her, a dreadful suspicion. It is solid, this new thing, it is the opposite of hunger. She’s emerging from a dream of distant thunder, rumbling and loose. Something has happened tonight that she thought impossible. In the morning, she will want to tell me about it.