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About the Author
Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a short story writer and editor, and the operator of the micropress Innsmouth Free Press. Her short stories have appeared in Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing, The Book of Cthulhu, ELQ/Exile: The Literary Quarterly, and Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic Science Fiction. She is the editor of Dead North: Canadian Zombie Fiction and Future Lovecraft. She lives in Vancouver.
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Scales as Pale as Moonlight
A child wailed in the dark, in the scrubland.
The serpent screams like that as it waits in the thickets.
Laura opened the window and stood still, listening. The cry did not repeat itself. She shouldn't have listened to the stories her aunts were telling about the alicante, how it would come in the middle of the night, into the homes where nursing women slept. It crept over stones and grass and into the bedroom, and it sucked the mother's milk. Sometimes, if the baby of the family woke up, the snake placed the tip of its tail in the infant's mouth, pacifying it so it would not stir the mother.
Silly stories and superstitions she'd heard as a child.
But she had no baby. No child clung to her breast.
Outside, there were only the trees and the dark.
* * *
The women were making tortillas, palming the dough into shape. This day there was no talk of snakes that steal milk.
Laura wished for rain.
She wished she'd gone with Hector.
He was hunting with some of her other cousins, off to find deer and snakes. She'd hunted with him when they were kids, using a two-pronged stick to catch the snakes; afterwards, they'd splash in the jagüel. He was the one closest to her. The rest of them, the cousins and the aunts and uncles, they looked at her kindly, but she knew what they thought of her, they thought she had gone weak in the city. City girl with no mettle, no strength in her hollow bones. The women started roasting chilis and the smell tickled Laura's nostrils, making her cough. Like the snakes, which flee when you burn chilis at night to keep them at bay, far from the low, warm bedrolls where the country folk sleep. Laura slid away from the house, away from the quiet stares of her aunts.
The town had only one store. It sold everything from batteries to canned goods. At dusk, the children gathered outside of it, to drink pop and chew bubble gum.
Laura went in and rummaged at the magazine rack – pictures of pop and soap opera stars in garish colours on the cover. The owner had tossed some used comic books, two pulp novels and a romance novel into the stack.
The romance novel was an old Gothic story, with the heroine standing, popeyed, in front of an ominous castle.
Laura approached the counter. The woman be-hind it was very pregnant, her belly straining against the confines of her blouse, sweat dripping down her brow.
The shopkeeper smiled.
"Only this," Laura said, placing the book upon the counter and when the shopkeeper opened her mouth to speak, Laura cut her off. "I have exact change."
Laura placed the money on the counter and felt the accusing eyes of the woman as she left the store.
She went back to the house but stayed outside, sitting under the shade of a pepper tree. She read about the Gothic heroine, who had married a rich man and now lived in his accursed castle, riddled with dozens of secret passages. The heroine had fallen into a pit of poisonous pythons. Laura thought it was ridiculous. Pythons are not poisonous. Neither is the alicante, the corn snake, moving through the maize field, hiding in the furrows. Pituophis deppei deppei. She'd looked it up in an encyclopedia, in the days when taxonomy and animals had fascinated her.
She read about the silly heroine, who suspected the castle was haunted by the ghost of her husband's previous wife, until the sun started going down and the rumble of a truck made her lift her eyes.
In the brush, she thought she saw something moving, a shadow disappearing. Probably not a snake, though there were plenty up the hill, in the little cemetery.
She walked into the house just as her cousins came in carrying a few rabbits and laughing, chattering; the dogs wagged their tails and sniffed around their feet.
Laura sat on a chair and watched.
"Laura, I caught a snake. A large one," Hector said when he saw her.
Snake meat. Pale, soft meat. They'd serve it next day, together with the rabbit. She'd eaten lots of dry rattlesnake meat the year she broke her left arm, be-cause they said it would help it heal faster.
"No deer?" she asked, not because she was interested in the answer, but because it was customary. A ritual.
"Nah," Hector said and shifting, noticing her far-off look, he spoke again. "Wanna have a cigarette?"
They stood outside, leaning against the wall. Hector was down to his last smoke, so they had to share, like the teenagers they'd once been. Laura took a drag and handed the cigarette back to Hector.
"I talked to Rolando yesterday."
"What did he say?"
"The usual," Laura muttered.
It had all been very polite, almost scripted.
Rolando blamed her, hated her. Two times blood and child had seeped out of her body during the first trimester and then the child, the one baby she'd birthed, was a cold lump which spilled onto the doctor's hands.
"He thinks I should stay."
"You want to go back to the city?"
"What is there to do here?" she asked in exasperation.
Laura did not reply. It was not as much being bored as being fed up. With everything and everyone.
"I can take you to dinner in Calera tomorrow night," he said. "We can go to a nightclub afterwards."
"There's a nightclub in Calera?"
"The guy who owns the hotel has a little annex, right in the hotel, and it serves as a nightclub. If we go early we can walk around the church and catch a movie."
"Did they ever put air conditioning in the movie theatre?"
She took the cigarette back, nodding.
* * *
Her cousin was right. The cinema had the same old ratty seats and was as hot as an oven, packed to the brim on Saturday. Fifteen years had added some grime to the floor, leaving the rest untouched. They caught a matinee and then went to the church. Laura stared up at the pale icon of the Virgin, a porcelain child in her arms.
Dinner was at a little restaurant with sunflowers painted on the walls and Hector topped it all by dragging her to the promised nightclub.
It was small, stuffy. Hector danced with a woman in a tight yellow shirt. She watched them, feeling jealous that they could be that young, forgetting Hector was twenty-nine, only a year her junior.
On the drive back she pretended to sleep. The drinks had only made her more miserable. Laura pressed her face against the window and glimpsed a pale snake on the side of the road. White as snow and rather large, unlike the snakes they'd chased through the cemetery.
"Hector, look," she said.
"Huh?" he asked.
They passed it by. She looked at the rearview mirror and saw only darkness.
* * *
Laura woke up late. She had a cup of atole and wondered if it might rain. There were no umbrellas in the house and she'd be taking a chance if she went up to the old cemetery.
She decided to take the walk, what the hell. It might do her good.
They didn't like to let her do this. To walk alone. It was what had gotten her into trouble with Rol-ando. She'd begun to walk out at nights. She'd take off and walk and walk through Mexico City. No coat. One time, no shoes. It worried him, of course. All the insecurity and Laura out there. He'd sent her to stay with her relatives after the last time, when she had fallen asleep at an underpass and the cops had found her.
The grass in the cemetery tickled her knees. She pressed her hands against a familiar headstone.
She had spent many afternoons playing there with her cousin before moving to the city to live with her dad. She had hunted alicantes with Hector. It was a scary creature, but she was brave back then; she did not fear the snake though she'd heard tales that it might grow ten metres long.
She wasn't brave anymore. She wasn't the girl in the photographs, holding snakeskins across her legs. The tough girl who could ride better than all the boys, who helped her uncle with his taxidermy.
She was this sad, dark, pitiable thing running in the night.
A cry, like a child's, made her raise her head. Neck tense, eyes wide, Laura looked around, trying to determine where the sound had come from.
There was a rustle in the grass and she rushed forward, but there was nothing there.
The cry did not repeat itself.
* * *
Laura found the old encyclopedia. The fan in her room screeched. The rains would come soon and cool the house. She might turn the fan off then and sit listening to the patter of the raindrops.
She looked at the pictures of snakes in the old volumes. Turning a page she found scraps of paper. Drawings of winged serpents. It was Hector's handiwork.
She stared at the knotted snakes and his messy handwriting. There was also a Polaroid of them. Laura had pigtails. Hector was missing two front teeth. She smiled.
And here now, another photograph. This one was older: Laura's mother and Laura by her side, a toddler. In the mother's arms a baby. Laura's brother. She'd been three when he died in the crib. Her mother killed herself four months later. Father had sent Laura to live in the countryside, with her grandmother. She'd gone back to Mexico City only when he had remarried a bountiful stepmother who gave him six kids.
Laura felt her insides knotting themselves, like a piece of string. It was one thing to walk by her mother's grave, but it was another to stare at her photograph. They were so much alike. Same dark, large eyes. Their thin mouths both curled in an uncertain smile. The frail neck.
She grabbed the Gothic paperback, hoping its melodramatic scenes would calm her down, but now it was turning into a Jane Eyre rip-off, with a mad wife stashed in the tunnels.
Laura turned off the lights.
* * *
"Do you remember those stories about alicantes Mama Dolores used to tell us?" Laura asked.
Hector was taking out sweet bread from a paper bag and putting it on a platter for dinner. He shrug-ged.
"That old alicantes can be very large and long. They grow fur and wings sprout from their backs."
"Have you ever seen a large one?"
"How large are you thinking? I've certainly never seen one with fur or wings."
"We helped your dad stuff the dead animals, re-member? We used marbles for the eyes of snakes."
"For the eyes of everything."
"They felt very real. The eyes."
Hector folded the bag and left it on the kitchen table. He offered her a plate and a piece of sugary bread.
"What did you do with the mounted animals?" she asked.
"I gave them away. They reminded me too much of dad."
"Did it work?"
They painted the baby's room yellow and removed the wallpaper with the little dancing elephants. Threw away the crib. It did not help. She still woke in the middle of the night expecting the cry of an infant that never came.
"I suppose. I still miss him."
Laura nibbled the bread without any appetite. She knew they wanted her to eat well. She tried to comply, the same way she tried to meet the others for all the meals even though she disliked these gatherings. Her aunts disapproved when she woke late. Townsfolk wake early, with the dawn. Her tendency to roll out of bed close to noon was proof of her decadence. Of what the city had done to her.
"I was at the cemetery. I stopped by my mother's grave and put some wildflowers there. I left some for your dad too."
"You walked all the way there?"
"It's not that far," she replied. "Only half an hour's walk. I'm not an invalid."
"You shouldn't have gone by yourself."
Hector looked at her with kind, understanding eyes. She disliked his pity.
"Do you have a beer?" she asked.
They sat outside, on the back steps, watching the moon rise, huge and round, as they drank.
* * *
Rolando used to phone thrice a week. The calls had diminished in frequency.
This time he didn't bother making an excuse, no stuff about being busy with work. He sounded irritated. He hung up quickly. Laura tapped her nails against the telephone and went back to her room and her book. She had not finished the paperback. It sat by her bed, like a venomous creature waiting to attack.
She sat, cross-legged, in the middle of her bed, smoking a cigarette. Rolando didn't like it when she smoked and she stopped the first time she got pregnant, but Rolando wasn't there and Laura had no children.
Don Quijote bored her to tears and she stretched a hand towards the paperback. It was only a silly story. Snake pits, for God's sake. She'd been brave. Where was that bravery now?
Laura opened the book. The previous wife was not only insane, but now the husband had planned to drive this second one mad and also stash her in the tunnels. There was talk of bricking her alive into a wall. Shades of Poe.
This time the cry was so loud it seemed to be coming from within the house.
Laura jumped to her feet and opened the window.
The trees were ink black, brush and wilderness extending behind the house. It was dark, but moonlight made it shine, the opalescent skin almost glowing. A large, white snake.
Laura grabbed a sweater and hurried to the back door. She opened the door, the chill, night air hitting her in the face. She walked around the house, looking for the snake.
It was gone.
* * *
"I heard a baby crying outside," she told Hector. "I think it was a snake."
"Snakes don't cry."
They sat behind the house, under a tree. It was hot but a cool breeze blew, ruffling her hair. She'd thought of going for a swim in the jagüel, damn the rains that refused to visit them, but Hector didn't want to go and he wouldn't let her venture there by herself, on account of the leeches living in the water.
She thought it was an excuse. Hector was always near, helpful and kind, but she'd begun to resent him. She felt a prisoner, unable to go into town on her own, sneaking out if she wanted to take a walk – but now even that was difficult and he was keeping a better eye on her. She hadn't been able to visit the cemetery again. He wouldn't let her go. It would be sad, he said, remembering all that stuff. Death and dying.
As though she'd forgotten.
"I'm going in. I want to phone Rolando," she said.
Hector began to protest. She ignored him and grabbed the heavy, Bakelite telephone sitting in the living room. It rang a dozen times, but nobody answered. She sat with the telephone on her lap.
She thought of the heroine in the castle, waking to discover she'd been buried alive inside the walls of the great manor.
* * *
They went to the tianguis in Calera on Saturday. Laura and Hector walked down the rows of stalls carrying a large canvas bag, looking at the merchants selling fruits, vegetables, meat and clothes.
She stopped in front of a merchant with toys and alebrijes on display. The bright, multicoloured paper mache creatures were a mix of different animals. Fish with tails. Bats with feathers. One was a coiled, winged snake. She picked it up, letting it rest on the palm of her hand.
"Do you want it?" Hector asked.
"No, it's fine," Laura said, putting it down and wiping her fingers against her shirt.
"You were up last night. Outside the house."
She had been but only for a few minutes. The fan whirred inside her room, noisy. It was stifling hot. She needed the cool night air.
"Were you spying on me?"
"You woke me up. The door banged open. Have you been taking your medication?"
She knew the look on his face. It was the same look Rolando had when he glanced at her: distrust. She remembered the birthing pains and the last push. The room, so still and quiet. No child's wail emerging from the tiny child. And he ... all he'd said was ah. As though he'd expected it all along. Laura couldn't be trusted with anything. Laura with her sadness and her moods, the two miscarriages and the stillbirth, the bouts of anger. And the running. Running through the night. Just like her mother.
"Yes," Laura muttered.
She did, though they only made it worse – the sadness always there and the nervous ticks. Sometimes she'd turn in her bed and think she could still feel the butterfly kicks of the child in her womb and she pressed her fingers tight against her stomach only to feel nothing.
And she ran.
"Are you sure? Maybe you forgot."
"What am I? Five?" she asked. "Damn it, I'm tired of having you counting my medication and following me around. I need to go back to Mexico City. I'll take the bus tonight."
"Look Laura, you'll do as Rolando says and he said you need to rest and take your pills. You were sounding odd last time you spoke to him."
Laura chuckled. "Have you been phoning Rolando?"
Hector gave her a guilty look, jamming his hands in his pockets. "He doesn't want you getting in trouble."
She knew the truth then, looking at him. It had been pre-arranged. The sweet, thoughtful cousin. Her childhood playmate, hired to play the nanny. A kind jailer for the mad wife. No attic for her, no bricked tunnel: just the placid, quiet little house in the little town.
"It's not some bizarre conspiracy," Hector said. "We are all worried about you. You hear snakes crying."
"You'd have believed me about the snakes when we were younger," she said.
On the way back home she clutched her paperback.
* * *
She'd been brave. Headstrong and fearless. Not like the heroine of the novel, never snivelling in the dark, never wavering as a candle sputtered. Hunting snakes without shivering.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "This Strange Way of Dying"
Copyright © 2013 Exile Editions Ltd..
Excerpted by permission of Exile Editions Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Scales as Pale as Moonlight,
Stories with Happy Endings,
Bed of Scorpions,
Driving with Aliens in Tijuana,
The Death Collector,
This Strange Way of Dying,
Shade of the Ceiba Tree,