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The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone

Harriet Beecher Stowe

The creature appeared when her father died and she was orphaned for the second time. In fact, he had died several times before, every time he disappeared. She could not remember how many times. Her memory was fallible: it kept count as it wanted to and had a tendency to round up when it came to absences.

The day before his death, she travelled thousands of kilometres to see him without knowing how she was going to find him. She met him that morning, arriving at a house that was not her own, but her father’s. She did not recognise him. He looked like himself, but had nothing to do with himself. It was the same face, the same curly hair, the same mole on his cheek, the same fleshy lips. But his cheeks were sunken, his hair almost gone, his skin yellowing, everything eaten by the cancer and the chemo.

He was pleased to see her. At least, that’s what he said, and then he sank back into the morphine stupor. He did not speak voluntarily any more. He answered in monosyllables if she spoke to him, sending them out in a whisper, but his words grew ever more difficult to understand.

It was a torture for him to breathe, as much for him as for his listeners. It was an inhuman effort for him to capture air and bring it into his lungs. The noise it made was unbearable. She had never heard such an obvious pre-mortem death rattle before: she did not know they existed, these deep groans which ruined the throat, forcing him to make noises that were more animal than human.

Hearing him breathe was almost the same as breathing with him. They had brought in an oxygen tank to help him, but each breath was a struggle which was only won in retrospect, when he exhaled; a painful joke at the expense of his illness more than a victory.

She touched him, as did her father's wife, who was not her mother, acting as a nurse and giving him the drugs that made him feel a little more comfortable. These were the instructions from the palliative care doctors, but whenever she asked him if anything hurt he shook his head and grimaced. He was very agitated, twisting and turning in bed, changing his posture constantly, as though he wished to avoid spending too much time in the same place, afraid that inactivity would bring death along with it.

The night terrified him. It was hard for him to sleep ever since his health had started to worsen and, in spite of the sleeping pills, he didn’t stop sitting up in bed and speaking. He slept in snatches throughout the day, while the room was filled with light, and fought against sleep when the sun went down because he was afraid of not waking up again. When asleep he shuddered uncontrollably, his arms shaking along the length of his torso, his head nodding, weak moans escaping his mouth, followed by fearsome nightmares, and then he woke up with his eyes starting from his head, terror encroaching on his wide pupils and his breath halting and slow.

He died during the night, a little before midnight. The darkness he had been so scared of swallowed him and his chest stopped moving up and down. His eyes were rolled back, looking at the ceiling and seeing nothing. She took his hand and could find no pulse. Her brother said goodbye and said she should head off too. Someone closed his eyes and she stayed sitting there, her father’s hand in her hand, looking for the pulse she knew she would not find.

Everyone started to cry. She cried too, but she was not sad. More angry than sad. He had only been an occasional visitor to her life and she realised that this was a death that had taken place for her many years ago. It seemed unfair, and if she looked for a pulse without any hope of finding one, it was because at heart she wanted there to be some movement, some sign.

She felt very much like a child again, desperate for her father’s warmth, just as when she had sought his arms out at night when they were watching some horror movie together. He laughed, and told her the secret that would ensure she never was scared again: it was all fake, all of it, the blood, the tears, the dead. She was seven or eight years old and never again been afraid of those films.

But this was not a film, and he was not an actor who had just shot a scene. This was a death, with no cameras to film it, no team standing off set and looking at the set, no one to shout ‘Cut!’ and break the silence. And she was not an actress. The body lying there had been her father, and all she could hear were sobs, perhaps her own.

She held onto her father’s hand, which was no longer his hand. She did not want to leave him alone because then they would take him away. Very polite men would come, perfectly dressed, and they would put him in a wooden box, and she would leave the room so that they could put his clothes on him, and she would have to hear things like ‘Before he gets cold’, and see those strangers touching him. She went into the bathroom while they took the body down to the truck that would drive it to the funeral parlour. The walls around her shook, emitting waves of depression that entered her without finding any resistance. No one was with her, but she did not feel alone. There was an animal quality in the energy that surrounded her, more suited to a stable than to a bathroom, a smell of old wood, fresh manure and wet straw, a creaking of boards which threatened her in the background, making itself heard without any relation to the space she occupied. This sensation followed her as she drove after the truck, in the car of a close relative.

The last time she touched her father was in the funeral parlour, the same afternoon that he was buried, and the body had spent a long time in the coffin at a low temperature. She had to force herself to touch his forehead with her lips, in an action almost like a kiss. She felt how cold his skin was, stiff as cardboard. Her father had been a very dark man, but now his double had the dull gold colour of wild beeswax. Death was yellow; that was the colour that stained his body. For a moment, the scene took on the sheen of faded reality, like an overexposed photograph. This strange varnish ate away at the corners of the coffin, dulled the sobs of the rest of her family, and seemed to make the air in the room weigh even heavier. She realised that she was not ready to say goodbye, because this man was a stranger to her. How on earth can you say goodbye to an unknown man?

The funeral parlour was like the waiting room of an airport from which no planes fly. The part that was visible to the public was decorated in an attempt to seem like a welcoming salon, but all the good intentions had died half-formed. There was nothing welcoming in the sadness, real or feigned, of those present, no matter how many centrepieces were scattered round the room. The back of the building was the refrigerated zone, and the cold impregnated the whole building, even the office where they were called and told about the things that could not be processed; but it was all the same now, nothing mattered, this was not her father. Even so, they had to agree about what to do, and some had to give in and some had to insist, and the agreement they finally reached was a false one, because no one said what he really thought, but rather what seemed most elegant.

It was very cold. This was the temperature of funeral preservation, the weather systems of the afterlife making their way into this world. This was a space in which a person no longer existed, although people kept on forcing themselves to refer to him by name: there was nothing but a collection of extinguished organs, all of them permanently and indefinitely on strike, a space occupied by materials which were changing their state. The cold was a way of stopping time, or rather slowing it down, so that this change of state could be delayed and the family members could fool themselves for a while with the optical illusion that whatever was lying there was in fact only sleeping. ‘Rest in Peace’, they said, but he could not rest because he was not tired because he was no longer alive. These were the remainders, the ones on this side of the cold, the ones who kept on treating the one who was not there as though he were still one of them, and they applied the same laws and customs to him, and waited for him to give his approval. But no one was prepared to accept the change. This was no longer her father, and she could not weep for him; her tears did not come.

She could have sworn that the church where they celebrated the funeral was close to a stud farm or something, because the air was filled with strong horsey smells. Her father had not been a believer, and even so they had a mass said for him, more to calm his disconsolate widow, who was not her mother. He had never set foot in churches, unless it was to go to a wedding or a funeral, and he never took off his sunglasses when he did so. This was not simple coquetry on his part: it was a manoeuvre to hide himself from the gazes of other people. She understood him: Eyes are the windows to the soul. Happy or sad occasions left him open, in full sight of everyone, at the mercy of public opinion. The sunglasses hid the living part of his face; they were a wall to protect him from the judgement of others. As the mass went on, she felt the urge to take out her own glasses and put them on. She thought that this was a gesture that would somehow bring them together, but she did not dare rummage in her bag.

The little local church was filled with people. It was spring, but it was very cold. She was sure that her father would have hated the ceremony; she had heard him say every now and then just how much he hated the Church and the clergy. She imagined him shifting uncomfortably in his coffin, there, in front of the altar. It was a morbid thought that she could not stop herself from thinking. She wondered if her siblings were thinking the same thing, and although she shot them a quick glance, there was no way of reading their faces. The obvious smell of old horse did not seem to bother them.

She tired to drive these thoughts from her mind by fixing her eyes on the religious images. Christ and the Virgin were standing behind the alar, in front of the sacristy. It would be Holy Week in a few days, and the images had been taken down from their pedestals in order to be set up on the floats. The Virgin was wearing her most luxurious shawl, and Christ was dressed as the Prisoner, a purple tunic and his hands raised in front of him, tied by a golden rope.

The mass seemed to be going on forever, in spite of the indications they had subtly made to the priest that he should try to cut it down as much as possible. Christ looked up, looked at her and puffed out his cheeks, the same gesture her father used to make whenever he was bored. This lasted no more than a heartbeat. Christ was in his place, looking at the floor, his hair, donated by one of the village women, tumbling down his back, set into curls using supermarket own-brand tongs. She knew that the images in a church don’t look at you or make signs. That only happened in horror movies, and only in the bad ones, because everything was more subtle now, where cinematic language was concerned.

She got home very late after the funeral. She had taken the last flight and found her whole family asleep. Her first impulse was to go and kiss her son. She needed to feel the skin of someone who was not cold in order to shake off the death she still felt on her lips. She went into the child’s bedroom and sat down by the bed. When her eyes had got used to the darkness, she stroked his cheek and felt like she wanted to cry. She wanted to get the scene at the funeral parlour out of her mind, and so she bent over her child to kiss him. He shifted in the bed and said, in a very low voice, ‘Honey, don’t cry.’ She felt her tears dry up immediately. ‘Honey’ was what her father called her, no one else. The next morning, the child did not remember that she had kissed him.

That same night, the creature visited her for the first time, shortly before dawn. Its body covered in hair that was too long and dark for it to be a donkey, it looked down at her from the ceiling. Its feet were holding tight to the top of the room but its head was turned completely around to be able to see her from above. It had disproportionately large nostrils, which moved spasmodically. The muzzle seemed more a protuberance than part of an animal’s head. The plaque-covered teeth were like human teeth, and the eyes, scarcely visible through the hair, stared down at her from their physically impossible setting. The creature walked along the ceiling, which was now a marshy meadow, its ears pricking up every now and then, its lips twisted into a smile that she did not know how to decipher. Mud fell down all over the room, leaving petrol stains on the bed and the furniture. She did not like being looked at in this way, the being shepherding her from the ceiling. She shut her eyes in an attempt to wipe the image away, and when she opened them, again, she was now in the mud pit herself, a few metres away from the ass-like creature, which still had its head twisted round and its ears pointing downwards. The creature walked around her without ever coming close, and although she tried to move away, it was always the same distance from her. The mud rose in drops from the floor and fell to the ceiling, where her husband lay in bed and her side of the bed was empty. There were other creatures wandering around the meadow, anthropomorphic beings with no arms or faces who twisted through the weeds, looking for one another, crawling even though they had legs, creeping up the muddy bushes, sniffing the air, smelling one another even though they had no noses. She wanted to flee from this place, but her feet stuck in the mud and stopped her from moving away, and the animal kept on watching her and the other creatures writhed around her, always getting closer, and she started to feel an unbearable sense of suffocation. She woke up in clean sheets, but with the impression that the mud had become encrusted on her skin, forming an invisible extra layer that weighed down her arms and legs. A shower did not help remove this immaterial and oppressive crust.

After her father’s death, her life did not seem to change materially at all. The distance and the lack of contact between them had led to a relationship that was poor, cold and deadeningly polite. They had called each other on their respective birthdays, although her father often forgot. She knew that when he rang her it was because her siblings or his wife had reminded him. It was sad for her to think that her own father knew so little about her. She felt that family relations were no more than a choreography of studied gestures, entirely scraped clean of their significance. They were automatic acts that one followed in order to obey an invisible protocol, the only thing that held this family together. The phone calls were all identical: they shared greetings, pretending an enthusiasm that did not exist; they asked the obligatory questions about one another’s health; they talked about the most recent time that the other had spoken with some other member of the family. Once they had reached that point, conversation faded and she had to resort to cliché to add anything.

A few days after his death she rang her father without thinking. After she had dialled the number she realised her mistake and smiled at how fuzzy her head was growing. Then someone picked up at the other end.

‘Hello, honey!’

‘Who is this?’

The line cut out at this point, but it had been her father: the same southern accent, his normal way of greeting her, his characteristic ability to avoid what was important. Her hand felt dead and the telephone fell to the floor. It took her a moment to react, and when she did, it was to dial the number again. This time all she heard was an automatic message telling her the number was unavailable.

The sense of oppression came with a numbness in her hands, which extended little by little in its own way. The sensation constantly struggled to enter her mind and filled her, in spite of everything staying more or less the same: her work, the inertia of her household and the peripheral events of her life. It was as though the absence of her father transformed him into an example of reality, more present than ever.

It was ironic: when he was alive he had barely been an extra in her life. She had almost no childhood memories of him, and there were no photographs of the two of them together, even before he split up from her mother. The only pictures of them together were more recent, especially after her wedding. In these, her father wore perfect suits with his characteristic masculine vanity, smiling the confident smile she disliked so much. This gesture made him attractive to women and charming to men, but for her it was just another sign of the distance between them. It was as though with this smile he were boasting of some secret knowledge, something he had no intention of sharing with her, and this conviction made her choke.

Her father became a recurrent theme of conversation in family reunions, and photographs of him started to appear, most of them previously unknown to her. Most of them came from the 70s and 80s; the contrast was poor and the colours greenish. The oldest ones were in black and white, slightly out of focus, and showed a young man sure of himself, full of life, successful. One of the ones that most caught her attention was a picture of him as a child, in clothes too big for his age, obviously hand-me-downs, and with the same enigmatic smile as always. This unrecognisable young boy was her father at the age of eight or nine. He was surrounded by other kids in a field in the southern village where he had been born. The child stared at the camera with such threatening certainty that she had to look away from the picture shortly after picking it up.

The creature reappeared a few days later. She found it once again with its head turned round in the same ceiling swamp, with the same half-creatures searching desperately in the muck. This time she saw them consumed by something, their ribs obvious against their skin, grubbing in the mud with their feet, sinking their faceless heads into the dirty grass, desperate and exhausted. The creature went over to one of them, which seemed to be convulsing in silence, opened its jaws, and split its skull with a single bite. Blood, mud, and the soft brains. The rest of the pack shrunk back and quivered in unison as the animal devoured the guts of its prey, whose legs shuddered like a condemned man in a noose. When she woke up, there was blood on the sheets.

Even allowing for these nightmares, she would have been able to carry on normally with her life if her father had not started to erupt into it during the day. Sometimes he appeared in the form of the child from the photograph and disarmed her with his smile, which made her realise that he knew all the secrets of reality. On other days he reappeared as she had seen him on the last day of his life: the same steely pallor, colourless eyes and unmoving chest, which was how he appeared in the bank where she worked. He stood in a queue with the other customers, just behind the student with his young person’s bankbook who wanted to do a cash withdraw. She was paralysed when she saw his familiar face, thin and inanimate, only a metre or so away from her. No one had noticed his presence, or else, if they had, they seemed to be unperturbed by the haggard skin and the fact that his eyes had no pupils. The student asked her help to fill in the bank form, but she did not hear him, only wanted to shout, to point to the one waiting his turn behind him, to say that he was her father, but had been dead for weeks. She dug her fingers into the edge of the counter as hard as she could. She wanted to make sure that she was not dreaming, being on duty at the window in the bank. She tried to anchor herself to reality in her contact with the wood, digging her nails in so far that they started to bleed. Her father did not move, waiting his turn behind the student, who seemed annoyed that she was not helping him with his requests. One of her colleagues asked if she was feeling all right, with the indulgent and complacent tone of one who themselves knows loss, and who is willing to justify the disorientation of grief. To look to the other side would mean losing sight of her father, and she did not want to give him the opportunity of getting out of her field of vision. She kept on looking ahead, over the student’s shoulder, the student who was complaining about the poor treatment he was receiving. Others of her colleagues came, took her away from the window and led her to one of the inner offices. She cursed and twisted all she could in order to make sure that her father was still there, that he was not a product of her imagination. They pushed her back and made her sit down, they brought her water, they undid her jacket and called her husband. Someone gave her a pack of moist towelettes to clean the blood from her nails. Her husband took her home, laid her down in bed and called the doctor, who diagnosed a depressive episode caused by the recent events.

They prescribed pills which promised to help her to sleep, to relax, to eat better, to concentrate better on the tasks she undertook, to relate better to the people around her, to cover up the wounds of her soul, to imagine a normal life, gluey and simple. Her father’s daily visits ceased for a while, although the night time visions remained and became ever more vivid, uncontrollable scenes of silent persecutions among these identity-less creatures which always ended in bloody dismemberment. She had to watch, was a forced witness to the massacres, incapable of changing the fate of the others, feeling that she was the one attracting the loose-limbed creature had chosen to attract the others. She was the lure, the fresh meat that called the prey in, the living bait that these wretched creatures sought, without realising that they had no mouths and could never sink their teeth into her, could never chew her flesh. Their birth was their fate, as they could never eat.

But the chemicals were not enough to convince her father that he should not visit her during the day. She asked herself what it meant, that he was so keen on being with her: was he trying to get back the time he had missed spending with her by clinging close during the day? Did these apparitions have anything to do with the nightmare dramas that besieged her? Was he trying to be in touch with her for some reason she did not know?

She travelled through her life as though it were no more than a stage set and reality was some kind of trompe l’oeil. It was not that she felt herself to be taking part in a farce, or thought that she was living a lie. The death of her father had brought her to the very marrow of reality, and there was nothing left apart from its corpse, the exterior, the display. The kiss she had given him, that sign of affection shown to the dead man in the funeral parlour, and the boastful smile of him in that photo as a child: both of these followed her at all moments, just as the nocturnal visions did. The numbness she felt now dulled her daily life. It was as though she were hearing her life pass by above her head, from the depths of an imaginary swimming pool: reality seemed to be out of shape, slow in some parts and fast in others, but always moving at a speed different from her own natural rate.

Everything reminded her of her father: cars made her think of the make of car he had bought just before his death, or the one he had driven for twenty years before that, or the car he was driving when he had the accident; a smoking cigarette butt on the floor evoked his image, smoking the two daily packets that managed to kill him; the display in the window of any shoe shop made her think of the special shoes he always bought in the same shop; the table laid for a meal made her think of his obsession with moving the cups and glasses around whenever he wanted to show his thought processes.

She grew used to these interferences, sometimes with the help of a pill, because it was the only way she had to deal with the intolerable laziness of events. She saw her father passing through everyday life as though he were coming for a visit and wouldn’t stay long for fear of boring her. She lived with her senses dull and her mind numb, trying to make it through the hours as they passed, standing like obstacles in her way. Things happened in this strange earthly limbo, this odd daily rat-race in which her father had recovered a kind of protagonism that he had lacked during his life, imposing on her during his death the presence he had denied her while he still lived.

But the visits from the creature became more frequent. She woke up every night shouting, struggling like a drowning man, her pupils wide, her eyes bloodshot, her pyjamas sticking to her body, her heart beating like a wild thing. Her husband tried to calm her down by holding her tight, but she hated these embraces because she could not feel his caresses thanks to the patches of hard skin she felt covering her body. The beast consumed every single one of the tortured beings in the swamp, these creatures whose bodies had been misshapen by malnutrition so much that they were no more than living sacks of skin, twisting hysterically. In spite of not having any limbs on their upper bodies, they clearly had genitalia throbbing between their thighs, and there were nights when she clearly saw them copulating. She also saw one of them giving birth, and saw the infant eaten by the ass-like creature as soon as it was born. There were no creatures left to be devoured, just her in the middle of this sea of mud and death which was the bedroom every night. She found mud-stains on the furniture whenever she cleaned and had to change her bedding every day because of the blood.

She tried to pretend in the face of all this, convinced that she would rediscover her lost mental stability, blindly trusting that the pills would solve whatever it was that was wrong in her head, the fruit no doubt of her grief in the face of her father’s death. She said nothing to her family, learning to live with her night terrors, as a condemned man learns to live on death row, trying to avoid thinking of the future by managing to cope with the present.

To cheer her up, her husband announced that now was the time for them to buy a new car. They went to various dealerships, looked on websites dedicated to cars, and asked friends and family members. She did not contribute much, limiting herself to giving her opinion if they asked her, and going with her husband to test-drive a few options. This was why she was unable to blame him when she saw him behind the wheel of her father’s car, a newer model, but the same.

As they drove she sensed the smell of her father’s cologne, which he had used for more than forty years: A mixture of spices, wood, tobacco and petrol named after a famous French fashion designer. She was scared to look into the rear-view mirror in case she saw him sitting on the back seat. She got used to using the wing mirrors and avoiding the mirror that looked down on her from just above her right shoulder. If she looked into it, she was sure to see the thing that weighed her life down on the other side of a pair of white eyes, inexpressive, rolled back and inserted into the head belonging to a motionless body.

As summer came round, lethargy found its place in her house. Her father’s presence was constant, amplified by the temperature that filled all possible spaces and melted the dynamic of the family. It became a custom to avoid all kind of contact with her family, especially with her husband, because she could not bear to feel absolutely nothing in moments of physical intimacy. She forced herself to care for her son, who was ever more distant from his mother, on the other side of the invisible barriers which she had had built up around herself. The long baths she took, lasting several hours, were not enough for her to clean her skin, to free her from the prison of her senses and her mind. The normality that the pills had promised did not arrive and she had grown tired of waiting for it. The only thing she could see, whether her eyes were open or shut, was the image of her father in his grave clothes, or else of the starving creature, always with its head twisted backwards, looking at her in the middle of the field of mud, and coming ever closer.

She did not even remember having argued with her husband. One day she woke up and found that he had left, taking the child with him. ‘There are too many of us in the house,’ he said to her by telephone. He had also been aware of the lack of air in the rooms, the disorientation that swamped them, even in so few square metres, the stifling smell of an unknown man’s cologne, her deaf and blind existence, the complete absence of empathy that she no longer bothered to hide.

The fact that her son was no longer there was a relief. She spent hours wandering round the house with no fixed purpose, measuring the intensity of the changes that had taken place in each room, putting salt in each corner of the house where she had seen her father, counting the immobile flies, the ones who floated in the middle of each room, feeling the echo of the child’s laugh floating up from between the tiles on the floor in order to hurt the soles of her feet. She could see the creature lying in wait for her at the corners of the room even by day. For hours on end she heard no more than her own voice calling to her from a bathroom she could not find. It was a great relief for her to see herself at one end of the corridor that ran through the flat, because that meant that the bathroom had to be at the other end.

She walked down the corridor, feeling that all her joints were made out of lead. The air was heavy, a storm brewing in the afternoon heat. The setting sun projected strange silhouettes through the blinds that she had lowered to try to keep a pleasant temperature in the house. The corridor grew longer and its ends seemed to twist as a result of the dampness in the air, or perhaps the failure of her numb domestic routine that had been threatening her for weeks now. Her skin seemed to have bent in from the inside, and she sensed a burning sensation come from the lowest levels. She felt like the skin of a drum, being mercilessly tightened.

The first spontaneous cut appeared at the level of her ankle. The next ones were in her wrists and elbows. Her flesh was splitting like that of an overripe piece of fruit, exploding all by itself: one, two…ten times. Her body opened. Her muscles released a ripe and beating pulp that covered her arms and her haunches. It was as her face itself was slipping, mixing with the sweat and the drool that fell from her mouth, that had itself lost its normal shape, with her lips hanging down at the corners, about to collapse off the jaw itself. Se was almost blind now as her eyelids were falling down over the field of her vision. Dizziness forced her to lean on the nearest wall to help keep her balance. Her fingertips remained stuck to it and it was an effort for her to free herself and make her way to the end of the corridor. When she crossed the threshold to the bathroom, she thought herself safe until she saw her reflection in the mirror over the sink. There was another skin under the skin that fell gently from her face. And she recognised the mole on the cheek, the fleshy lips, the curly hair and the white, pupil-less eyes.


Cristina Jurado @dnazproject is a bilingual sf authoreditortranslator and promoter. The first female writer to win the Best Novel Ignotus Award (Spain’s Hugo) for Bionautas, her recent fiction in English includes her collection Alphaland. She runs the multi-awarded Spanish magazine SuperSonic and also contributes at Constelación magazine.