By Elaine Vilar Madruga
Translated by David Shook
Original Edition: Havana: Casa Editora Abril, 2013
Winner of the 2013 Calendario Prize for Science Fiction
Elaine Vilar Madruga is one of Cuba’s most exciting young writers, and her science fiction retelling of the story of Salomé is the most important since Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play. Set on the planet of Vilda, the work’s namesake herself delivers the Baptist’s head to its governor. Told from the first-person point-of-view of six different characters, Vilar Madruga’s brief novel tackles important subjects, from sexual violence to the fears that make us human, with grace and humor. Vilar Madruga is a bold young writer equally influenced by Faulkner, Saramago, and Le Guin, and Salomé will be her first book translated into English.
Silvan “The Pirate” Adus,
Commander of Cargo Vessel ‘Argos’.
Notes from the travel diary of Silvan Adus:
Day 6 of the hunt for the Mother:
It was me, and me alone, who could activate the maser and fire the death charge at that creature—may the gods let me forget her face!
Among all the men in my group, only I had heard the legends that are told in Vilda’s ports about the luck of those who see, even for a second, a Mother’s face.
But knowing that was not enough. Not for me.
She was hiding among the planet’s tear-trees. She fled from us, I suppose. We had been chasing her without rest for more than six days. She was hidden, but even so I managed to see her—my damn luck—and to lock some trace of her in my memory. The maser between my hands trembled so much that I was about to miss the shot. But no. The gods of the hunt were with me that afternoon, and the Mother fell without a cry among the trees. Her precious beast face broke into a hundred pieces, impossible to reconstruct even with the clonotopy that the most adventurous of my technicians might dare to attempt.
I saw her dead and I felt remorse, a pain in my belly like the Evil of Nake’s bite rotting your organs. I had only seen her alive for a second, but that second was enough for me to feel like the worst of assassins, the filthiest creature to have furrowed the sky since the times of the Great Breakdown.
My men trembled like children in the thicket. The youngest bit their lips until they made terrible stains of blood; the veterans looked at me with incredulous eyes: they couldn’t understand my crime, even though they knew that IT WAS NECESSARY.
Fear paralyzed me. Those beings that observed me, like tigers willing to pounce on a newborn’s neck, had quit being my men… And to think that just a few hours earlier I trusted my blood and luck to them. I yelled at them, I ordered them to advance in a tidy line toward the cave where the Mother kept her litter of eggs.
I only received a hostile silence as my answer.
At any moment, a dozen shots could turn me into chunks of flesh and shit, I remember thinking then, while I repeated the order in a scarecrow’s tiny voice, which seemed to have ceased belonging to me.
But that wasn’t the day of my death.
By all the gods, it wasn’t.
My men looked at me again with peaceful eyes. As if they had awoken from a dream, from the deepest nightmare. A shout of victory spewed viciously from one of their throats: “We have the Mother! We have the Mother!” and then all of them shouted that sentence in unison as if it were a sacred mantra that they should cling to with their nails and teeth if they wanted to save their lives and sanity.
And perhaps it was true.
We all entered the cave.
Darkness. The sound of water, not too far away.
“No one make any light!” I shouted suddenly, remembering the legend that I had heard so many times in the ports: Mothers can’t stand light. Their cocoons rot like dry shells if the slightest light touches them. I didn’t want our hunt to have been in vain. Not after the deaths of Niven and Clara, the second in commands of the Argos. Not after having seen them dry out as if they were the leaves of a tree in a single night and day, consumed by a nameless disease. I still remember their shouts. As if they were nailed to my ears. None of my men—not even the oldest veterans, who knew the maps of the Empire like the backs of their own hands—had heard of a plague that would mummify a body alive until turning it into strips of leather clung to bone.
Perhaps their deaths were what motivated me to pull the trigger on the creature.
The oldest motive of all.
Despite the darkness, it did not take us long to find the Nest. The tactile pseudo-appendages inserted in my boots replaced my momentary blindness. I felt the changes over the porous rock of the cave: the texture of plant life—red moss, perhaps—and the still perceptible residue of the Mother’s saliva.
And this trace was what we followed until finding the exact location of the Nest.
It was hidden in the wettest corner of the cave, in a place where not even the most insignificant light dared reach. The Nest was a mass of grasses and secretions. Disgusting, I thought.
Then, I noticed the presence of the eggs.
There were fifteen altogether. I felt them out. Three were perforated, completely useless. It wasn’t necessary to insert my hands in them to know that the fetuses were just chunks of dead meat.
But the rest of the litter was undamaged, and the eggs’ covering of skin vibrated with an energy that would soon come to light.
I made a quick calculation: eight million megacredits apiece. A one-way ticket, for me and my men, on the luxury trip of a lifetime.
Carefully, we placed the eggs in receptacles of armored glass that had been forged for the sole purpose of protecting the litter on the traversal back to the Empire.
And we returned.
This has been our first and last trip through that world of savannas and infinite forests where the Mothers live. No person or thing could ever make me return there. Not for all the credits in the galaxy.
No. Not for fear of the spatial blockade that the cloud of asteroids that surrounds this lost planet imposes on the few vessels that dare to cross its limits. I don’t even care about the prohibition of cartographers, who have omitted this world from their maps for millennia, condemning it to eternal obscurity. In their place, I would have done the same thing. I would erase it not just from the universe’s navigation charts, but also—if I could—from the languages and minds of the men who seek there the prohibited Eden of their parents.
The truth is that I am scared to return.
Scared of losing my soul and my mind at just looking at the face of another of the many Mothers that run through the forests of this world, and cross the rivers naked with their prosperous smiles, beyond good and evil. I don’t want to end up a crazed suicide, or mummified like Niven and Clara, or for my eyes to show for even a second the killer shine that I perceived today in my men’s eyes.
May everything remain forgotten.
So be it from today forward.
When the Argos takes off from this earth and I see myself safe with my cargo, I will give thanks to the gods of life and death for leaving me on this side of reality.
Twelve eggs: a single litter.
I am a blessed man. Blessed and rich.
Once I can free myself of these eggs I will also be a happy man.
For now I make do. I only pray that the Argos be faithful to me and returns me soon to home. That she takes me back to the arms of the whores and the bitter beer of the ports. That her warp motors not fail me even once…
…because if the new creatures still sleeping in the eggs like lifeless insects are born aboard my ship, then goodbye to everyone: whores, beers, credits. I will see myself made to open my eyes and contemplate them in all their beauty as savage beasts. The Argos doesn’t have enough space to escape. I will have to see them. Face to face. Without the trees as shields. Naked. And so beautiful. I suspect I will not have the strength to pull a maser’s trigger on one of Them…. not even on my own head.
Suicide is not the way… Death is not the way.
They wouldn’t allow me it.
I, Silvan “The Pirate” Adus, am afraid.
Elaine Vilar Madruga (b. 1989) is a Cuban novelist, poet, and playwright. She studied drama and classical guitar, and is a founder and convener of the Espacio Abierto Workshop for Fantastical Literature. Among her many prizes she has won the Calendario Prize for Science Fiction for her novel Salomé, and the Pinos Nuevos Prize for her work The Alpha Female. She is co-editor of the Cuban sci-fi and fantasy magazine Korad, and her work has been anthologized around the world. She lives in Havana.
David Shook is a poet, filmmaker, and translator based in Los Angeles. His debut collection of poems, Our Obsidian Tongues, was longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize. His recent translations include work by Mario Bellatin, Tedi López Mills, and Víctor Terán. In 2012 he served as the Translator in Residence for the Poetry Parnassus at London’s Southbank, part of the Cultural Olympiad leading up to the Olympics. He lives in Los Angeles, where he serves as editor of Phoneme Media.
IMAGE: By Willem Arondeus (1894-1943) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons