Hunger doesn’t forgive.
It’s a basic need that makes everyone equal, whatever their background, whatever they are, whatever they feel. It twists the guts of the wise and the foolish, of old women and little girls, of the fearful and of bullies. Hunger’s reach knows no boundaries, no barriers.
Lamia knows hunger. She has known it since the harvests withered, since water stopped falling from the sky, since the animals fled. Even so, she continued living with her family in the cabin on the riverbank.
There were four of them: father, mother, brother, and Lamia.
The orchard and the corral—with a dozen goats—gave them enough food to survive. Lamia was responsible for taking the goats to the pasture uphill as long as the weather was good. When the cold raged and snow dusted the countryside, she spent days by the fire, tanning hides with her father and brother. They ate broth and dried meat, consuming what they canned during the good weather, sledding in the snow when the sun shone, and they didn’t have any chores to do.
Her mother told stories about their ancestors by firelight, and when the night swallowed the light, her father would recite legends he’d heard from his father. Lamia and her brother vied to learn them first, without changing a single word. They also competed to see who was better at imitating the bleats of the goats, the buzzing of the insects, the splashes of different fish, and the song of each of the birds that woke them.
Fever took Lamia’s mother during a particularly hard winter. They buried her under the leafiest tree along the path up the hill so that her mother’s spirit could watch over the surroundings from on high and warn them of approaching danger.
Afterward, an enduring silence took up residence in the cabin.
Lamia’s father stopped smiling and spent many hours sitting by the stones where he tied the canoe, watching the river currents. Lamia and her brother now had to do double the work, which meant they were always tired and bad-tempered. They no longer wanted to repeat the legends they’d memorized or to imitate the sounds surrounding them.
On the first day of the second thaw after her mother’s death, Lamia’s father disappeared. The canoe, too. The place where it had been stored all winter—the shed behind the cabin—was empty. She and her brother went out looking for him until they reached the snowline on the mountain. They continued along the river below, seeking signs of his passage, exploring the paths and inquiring at neighboring cabins, but no one had seen him.
That spring, the plants in the orchard didn’t take. Lamia asked herself many times if it was because neither her father nor her mother had sown them, or if it was because she was already doomed and the land knew it.
Sometimes, Lamia stared at her hands. They were skinnier than when she lived in the cabin on the riverbank. They had the color of ash, which is the color of pulverized recollections, a color as indefinite as that of the scraps of life that constitute memories. They had once been the hands of a shepherdess and tanner, of a fisherwoman and peasant, of a daughter, a wife, and a mother.
Lamia’s husband arrived on the shortest night of the year.
The air was fragrant with sage, honeysuckle, and myrtle. Lamia adorned her hair with flowers and donned her mother’s embroidered tunic. With her brother and neighbors from nearby farms, she went to celebrate the Feast of the Wisps in the stream that always ran low but had been dry since after the thaw.
She and her brother shared some of what little cheese remained as well as two jars of fruit preserve left over from the previous summer. There were chants and dances, leaps over the bonfire, some laughs, many stories, and—for a time—they acted as if death had not moved in with them. Her brother tried a drink made from wild berries that made her throat burn, and he sat, sleepy, watching the stars who kept vigil over them from on high.
Lamia went back to the cabin alone, humming, intoxicated by the flavors of shared food and the aromas of summer.
The man who would be her husband was sitting on the rocks by the ones where her father used to tie up the canoe.
From afar, at first, she thought her father had returned, and she ran to greet him, shouting with joy. When she was closer, however, she realized it was someone else, and panic swept over her.
He was handsome. The moonlight focused on his figure and made his eyes and teeth glint white against skin and a mane as dark as the night. Even sitting, he was taller than Lamia, and when she came to a full stop next to him and started to fear him, he smiled at her.
She couldn’t remember more than bits and pieces of what happened after that: his smokey breath; his words in an incomprehensible language, but whose tone calmed her immediately; the smooth stroking of his fingers; the citrus scent of his skin.
He would appear only when the sun set, and, immediately upon arriving, would help them with their chores. He possessed extraordinary strength. No task seemed to tire him, and he was able to finish any work in less time than it took to milk a goat.
Her brother, reluctant at first to accept the stranger’s presence, welcomed him warmly when he repaired the cabin’s roof—and the man always brought her brother the fermented wild berry juice he liked so much.
When her brother fell prey to the drink’s effects and slept, her husband repeated Lamia’s name with that strange accent, whistling and enchanting, and she let him guide her through the forest to a tree house.
There, he would massage her feet, which were tired from all the chores in the orchard and from caring for the animals. He’d grin, and his smile threaded dreams and chimeras together, transporting her to places with names she couldn’t repeat—but she could imagine them, inhabited by brilliant, gorgeous beings, perfumed with oils and intoxicating essences.
He gave himself to her, and she received him, in that refuge among the treetops, on woven mats as soft as young breasts.
Was it love?
Lamia couldn’t answer that. She was sure that she felt rapture and reverie, waves of pleasure, and the audacity to want to flee from the hunger, because each time she spent a night with her husband, his kisses satiated her—even though she was slowly weakening, little by little, like flaming embers that grow cold.
By the end of the summer, her womb had begun to swell and her period had stopped. The orchard still didn’t yield fruit, but her husband sometimes brought them animals to roast over the fire. The vermin finished off the last of the goats that hadn’t fallen sick, and the river’s waters slowed until it dried up completely.
Her brother’s hair and teeth started falling out. Soon, he was so weak he couldn’t even get out of bed to relieve himself.
Lamia wasn’t much better.
Each night, however, her husband brought her to the tree house, and they made love. She cherished nothing more than sharing those moments with him. But, when the sun rose, her husband wasn’t there. She would wake in the cabin listening to her brother’s breathing, which grew more irregular with each passing day.
And then she stopped hearing it, and she, with hardly any strength, couldn’t bury him. It was her husband who took her brother’s body over his shoulder and disappeared uphill.
He never told her where he buried him.
Snow blanketed the ground around the cabin and cuddled the hills, muting the noises outside.
As the nights grew longer, her husband spent more time with her. Lamia languished in her bed, which he had improved with the soft mats from the tree house, but now he didn’t touch her like he used to. Instead, he limited himself to murmuring in her ear and caressing her neck with breathtaking tenderness. He gave her a dark potion to drink that had a metallic flavor she detested, but he insisted it was good for her and devotedly touched her bulky womb.
The baby stirred then, and she had to take his hands away so she could rest.
She died while winter’s mid-day sun knocked at her window.
It was a lovely day, but she couldn’t appreciate it. The pain that had begun in small waves overnight ended by breaking her apart from within.
She shouted for her husband at the top of her lungs.
He took her hand and merely watched as she twisted, and the life left her.
The baby was coming out wrong. The head was in the wrong position.
Her suffering was unbearable. The contractions were so violent that she lost consciousness several times.
When the sun began to lick the windowpanes, her husband covered them with blankets so he could return quickly to her side.
She began to bleed because the little body she carried tried to break through, tearing her.
The last thing she remembered was a dry sound, like a nut splitting, and then she stopped feeling her body.
You were floating.
To die was to float.
At least, it was for you.
Your husband stared at you while he fed you spoonfuls of a thick, steaming sauce.
Your physical pain had disappeared—and, Lamia, you felt light.
Strength returned to your body, and you noted how hunger was a fading memory.
He spoke to you in that faraway language that you still didn’t understand. He kept turning the words over and over again until you indicated with gestures that you didn’t understand them. Snow dampened the noises outside, keeping you both the kind of cavern where only your husband’s words splashed and interrupted the mute space.
You couldn’t bear it.
He kept talking while you gathered yourself on the bed, your gaze seeking your baby.
Your husband tended the old clay stew pot boiling over the fire in the hearth, still weaving words. And stirring and stirring. The stew thickened easily.
You tried to lift yourself. That was when you saw the red stains on the mat beneath you, how they multiplied across the ground. Against the walls.
You looked at yourself and saw your legs splattered with carmine threads, the same ones overflowing from the pot your husband tended.
But you couldn’t feel your heart race, nor your breath escape. You were still floating in an increasingly unbearable sensation-free limbo.
You lifted one hand to your chest, felt no heartbeat.
You wanted to shout, but you couldn’t because your chest wasn’t rising and falling with each breath. You could feel each one of your cells fighting to exist.
You remained in this state when he left that same night.
One moment, he was beside the fire, and the next, his large figure had disappeared. Apart from the mats upon which you were tossed, there was nothing in the cabin to indicate he’d ever been part of your life.
It was as if he had never been there.
But every last atom of your body ached with a pain so clinging no physical force could ever shake it from your bones.
The snow kept falling.
The fire went out.
From your cot, you could hear the blizzard until the wind ceased and the sounds of a springtime forest began.
The clear skies were visible beneath the blankets covering the windows. You remained there, unable to move, unable to make even a single muscle obey your will.
You were plunged into an endless lethargy, one in which you confused day and night while spring and summer melted together—and then the rest of the seasons, too. Your senses were muffled. You were never able to notice the spiders weaving their webs around your bed, nor hear the dripping snow as it melted, nor the spongy steps of animals nearby.
It was as if everything was meant for another person. As if your every tissue and organ was entombed forever.
You never saw your husband again, so you couldn’t ask him if the baby you’d birthed had been born healthy or dead.
Had he planned to impregnate you, or had he been surprised, too?
When did he decide to eat your baby’s body?
And, the most important: why did you give it to him to eat?
You had much time to reflect, to try to make sense of the deeds that now hung over your head like a curse—time in which the forest reclaimed the cabin and undergrowth invaded everything. No one came near the place: not your neighbors, not the shepherds, not even a disoriented hunter.
The insects were the only beings that kept you company. They never came close enough to touch you—as if some invisible force within you repelled them. The dark stains in the cabin dried and became crusts that the beetles and the ants then consumed. The stew pot with your baby’s body wasn’t anywhere … a small comfort for your flawed mind.
You didn’t know how much time you spent like that on the cot, hibernating, classifying your emotions, without means to move or utter any sound. The lightness you felt before transformed into the weight of the days, a parasitic sensation blurring inside you until you stopped perceiving yourself and discovered yourself as Other.
It wasn’t you rotting away in that forest shack. She who now no longer suffered from physical pain—or experienced hunger or thirst—could spend months counting the footsteps of a centipede that observed you from the edge of the mat, because the bugs and plants still avoided you.
Now you were Other: she who had once loved and who had been delivered by love; she who had to bury her entire family; she who suffered drought, sickness, ruin, and tragedy; she who treads dangerously close to madness.
That Other, the one you had transformed into, was an abject being who had eaten the flesh of her flesh. You hadn’t known how to read the signals, how to realize that your husband was a corrupted soul of the night. You hadn’t known that the pretty, sharp words he whispered in your ears were, in reality, his fangs cleaving to your jugular as he drained you of life and—at the same time—snatched away the life of the baby.
Of your baby.
The first thing you managed to do was cry without tears since your insides had dried out forever.
You cried for your recently-born baby, for the woman you once were, for the happiness that you thought you’d found at last, for your inability to react, for your paralysis. For that new feeling, deep-rooted and pulsing, of being a monstrous being, unworthy of this world.
I ordered you to get up.
It cost you an enormous effort to pay attention to me, but, in the end, you managed. Your joints cracked when you stood. From your newly-elevated position, you surveyed the inside of the cabin, taking in how the plants had taken over everything.
There was no trace of the bloodstains, and the remaining objects were broken or pulverized. Only your mother’s chest remained intact. You opened it and found the embroidered dress from the holiday.
You wanted to go out and walk to the river. The light burned you where it touched your skin, which began to smoke, and you had to stay in the shadows until the sun went down.
With the clarity of sunset, you stepped into the current. The river was no longer the dry and empty grooves you remembered, but rather a turbulent and abundant flow.
You stayed in the water until well past nightfall, when the stars crowned the heavens.
The crusts of blood, dust, and decaying vegetable material dislodged from your body and washed away.
When you left the water, you sheathed yourself in your mother’s dress and began walking without any precise destination.
From then on, you went where your feet took you, crossing enormous distances, seeking lodging to pass the days and to escape the lethal solar embrace.
You encountered many men, but none were your husband. You also encountered many corrupt creatures of the night, tatters of previous lives, unstitched souls, dissipated spirits—all longing to satisfy the need that drowned them. The need suffocating you all—a new type of hunger, one much more devastating than the physical need, one that eats away at reality and turns it into a simulacrum.
The life, being dead, is hunger for reality—to truly feel things again. It’s a need far more perverse than appetite because one cannot relieve it by ingesting just any food. No food can placate that craving.
In your case, there’s something else.
I’ve just managed to satiate my hunger temporarily while I look for the one who made me, for the one who condemned me to this not-life. I know he’s out there. He must answer for my baby. For me.
The night has been my refuge ever since my husband disappeared. He left me in my current state, between here and there, between the reality that others live and another I can just barely perceive with my anesthetized senses.
I find myself permanently in a nebulous zone I don’t know how to escape. I can’t find a way out.
The only thing that keeps me going is my conviction that he’s out there somewhere. Perhaps he’s seducing other women like me, trying to impregnate them, taking care of them during months of courtship while he feeds them his blood and plans how to dazzle the next one.
How many more like me has he left behind?
Perhaps there aren’t more like me. Perhaps he never managed to impregnate a woman again, because the putrid creatures of the night can’t reproduce.
In all the kingdoms I traveled through, in all the cultures that I encountered, and of all the sages I consulted before drinking their fluids, no one was able to tell me about anyone similar.
I merely stumbled upon some moldy parchments in the tomb of an ancient valley queen. They mention a ritual based on consuming the flesh of one’s direct descendant, a product of love, that would confer unheard of powers to whomsoever completed it.
Cursing him in all the languages I’ve learned over all this time—and practicing all the ceremonies revealed to me to call upon his name—was not enough: I still haven’t found him.
I find myself forced to walk this dusty land searching for him, with the hope that I’ll find him, perhaps in the next kingdom.
Meanwhile, I must live with dulled senses. I am blind, although I can observe. I live mutely, although I can talk. I am deaf, though I can hear. But I neither see, nor speak, nor truly hear. Sounds come to me deadened, as if I were hearing them through a thick wall, and objects barely appear before me, as if a veil were obstructing my gaze. I can’t even stutter words out as if an invisible force paralyzes my jaw when I try to express myself. The tips of my fingers don’t perceive textures, as if someone had burned them with hot embers.
Despite all of this, I still have to put up with the unending cry of my baby. I hear it in all the babies of all the towns, tribes, and villages through which I have passed.
It is the only sound that travels through the walls that trap my senses.
Each time a newborn moans, it’s my baby.
I can’t take the cries because I fear they’ll call my husband’s attention. If he discovers the baby, he’ll steal it so he can take it apart and eat it.
If I let the babies cry before I take them in my hands, it’s because one part of me wants my husband to appear so I can destroy him with my claws and teeth.
I would scratch deep furrows into the skin of his back, the same skin I once ran my hands over. The same back I hugged and kissed so many times. I would take out his eyes with my black nails and put them in my mouth. I would sew his lips shut with silver thread, even though my fingers would burn to touch it. I would let him succumb, blind, with needlework in his lips, and I would do it joyfully.
But, when I return to this ungrateful reality and contemplate—through the cloud enveloping my vision and my hearing—the fragile little bodies of the babies, I find myself taking pity on their tiny fingers, their pink faces, their playful little feet.
I can’t expose them to my husband’s rage.
I can’t let that bastard put his hands on them. I have to keep other mothers from experiencing what happened to me, from falling into insanity.
That’s why I take the babies and care for them in my cave, why I cradle them in my frigid embrace. It’s not my fault that they fall asleep forever. What else am I going to do if my breasts don’t fill with milk, if my embrace doesn’t warm them, if my breath makes them sick because I’m rotten inside?
I just want to stop my husband from killing them like he did my baby.
I will hunt him through other arts.
I don’t need a newborn as a decoy to end him and his cursed lineage.
Liberating so many mothers is so exhausting …
There’s always one giving birth somewhere. I crawl and I crawl through valleys and along coasts, over hills and beaches, across river mouths and along mountain peaks, seeking the newborns.
I must save them. I have to reach the young ones before he does. One day, with any luck, he’ll be waiting for me.
If I close my rheumy eyes, I can see him, leaning over the baby’s basket, caressing its little head, singing a lullaby in the same strange language with which he enchanted me.
I will pounce upon him. All the rage of a deceived woman and bereft mother will fall upon his head with the force of all those he coaxed, lied to, manipulated, and tricked.
And then, I will be able to rest.
Do you see how pretty my dress is?
It was my mother’s. Her mother—my grandmother—embroidered it when she married my father, and I have worn it since. After all this time, the cloth has lost its original color, but the embroidery remains intact.
Look at the vermilion, how pretty it is and how it stands out!
Do you like the motifs they form? They represent my errant life, rendered in stitches. Many have admired their craftsmanship, marveling at the quality of such vivid shapes.
When they learn my story—this story—their wonder peeks out of their eyes as tears. Emotion overtakes them and, moved, they sob: La Lamia! La Lamia!
Did you know I’ve been adding new embroideries?
They’re made from the hairs of each mother whose newborn I’ve liberated. Yours will go right here.