Tomb Song

An excerpt

Julián Herbert

Artwork by Robert Zhao Renhui

As a child I wanted to be a scientist or a doctor. A man in a white coat. But I soon discovered my lack of ability: it took me years to accept that the earth was round. In public I used to pretend. Standing in the classroom (one of many, because my primary education took place in nine different schools), I presented the spinning and turning motions to my group without the slightest stage fright. As the book directed, I showed these processes by running my pencil through an orange decorated with blue crayon. I memorised each illusory story, the perpetual spinning motion of the segments, the hours and the days, the movement of the sun . . . But inside, I didn't believe it. I lived with the proud and lucid angst that made more than a few insolent arch-heretics die, flayed at the hands of Saint Augustine.

It was Mum's fault. We travelled so much that to me the earth was a wicker polygon bound in all directions by railway lines. Curved, straight, and circular tracks, tracks in the air, tracks underground. Atmospheres made of iron but lighter, resembling a catastrophe in a film where the polar icebergs crash into each other. Limbo boundaries like a tunnel, celestial boundaries like a Tarahumara precipice, boundaries crunchy like a field of alfalfa crushed under sleeper cars. Sometimes, from on top of a rock or washed up on an outcrop of the Miguel Alemán promenade in Acapulco, I would look toward the sea and imagine I could make out yellow wagons and diesel engines with the National Railways of Mexico emblem on them, rattling spectrally along beyond the breeze. Sometimes, gazing out of a window at night, I pretended the fireflies under the bridge were those neighbouring galaxies that my older brother used to talk about. Sometimes, while I slept lying in a metallic corridor, my arms around children I didn't know, or standing in a crush of dozens of bodies that smelled of fresh sorghum grass and four days of sweat, or with my skeleton twisted in hard wooden seats, I dreamed that the form and substance of the planet were changing with every passing second. One afternoon, when the train stopped in the Paredón shunting yard, I decided that the whistle of the engine was announcing our arrival at the end of the world.

This is all stupid, of course. It really gets me down. Especially today, as I look at my mum scrapped and immobile on her hospital bed with her arms covered in bruises from the needles, connected to translucent IV bags marked with dry blood, transformed into a chemical map by the little signs that publish—in Bic biro and with spelling mistakes—the identities of the poisons they are injecting: one gram of Tempra, ceftazidime, citarabine, anthracycline, ciprofloxacin, doxorubicin, litres of mixed solutions stored in black bags to protect the venoms from the light. Crying because her most loved and hated son (the only one who could ever save her from her nightmares, the only one at whom she shouted, "You're not my son any more, you bastard, to me you're nothing but a rabid dog") has to put the food into her mouth and look at her withered nipples when changing her gown and carry her to the bathroom and hear—and smell, for all that she hates that sense—how she shits. With no strength. Drunk on three transfusions. Waiting, ensconced in her surgical mask, for them to extract another sample of her bone marrow. I feel sorry for not having been—thanks to her, thanks to her hysterical life of traveling across the whole sainted country in search of a house or a lover or a job or a happiness that never existed in this so-called Sweet Homeland—a model son: a son who was capable of believing in the roundness of the Earth. Someone who could have explained something to her. Prescribed something to her. Consoled her with an oracle of rational rottenness at this hour when her body is shaking with gasps and the fear of death.


My mum was born on December 12, 1942, in the city of San Luis Potosí. Predictably, since this is Mexico, she was called Guadalupe. Guadalupe Chávez Moreno. However, she assumed—partly to give herself an air of mystery, partly because she sees her existence as a criminal occurrence—countless aliases during the course of her life. She changed names as brazenly as other people dye or curl their hair. Sometimes, when she was taking her children on a visit to her narcotrafficker friends from Nueva Italia, or to the little old ladies from Irapuato she worked for as a servant just after running away from my grandmother's house in Monterrey (there's a photo: she's fourteen, her hair is cropped short, and she's wearing a blouse decorated with appliqués she fixed onto to the fabric herself), or to the fleeting step-uncles and step-aunts from Matamoros, or to Lázaro Cardenas or Villa de la Paz, she would instruct us:

"Here my name's Lorena Menchaca and the guy who does karate is my cousin."

"Here they call me Vicky."

"Here my name's Juana, just like Grandma."

(My grandmother generally called her Cursed Child as she held her by the hair and dragged her along the patio, smashing her face against the plant pots.)

The most consistent of these identities was Marisela Acosta. Under this name, my mother devoted herself for decades to the business of prostitution.

There is a grain of truth to the pseudonym. Guadalupe's biological father was called Pedro Acosta. He was a musician (there's a photo: he's playing a Cuban three-string at the front of his group Borincano Sound, with my great-uncle Juan—my grandmother Juana's brother—on the guitar), and it seems that with time he became the owner of fruit and veg warehouses in the La Merced market. Mum hardly knew him. Perhaps she saw him once, or perhaps never and she only imagines him. It was a step-father who brought her up as his daughter: my granddad Marcelino Chávez.

I don't know exactly when she became Marisela; that was her name when I met her. She was very beautiful: short and slim, her straight hair falling to her waist, a toned body and shining, shameless indigenous features. She was over thirty but looked much younger. Not a modest dresser, she flaunted her wide hips, shapely buttocks, and flat stomach in nothing but a pair of jeans and a wide scarf crossed over her small breasts and tied behind her back.

From time to time she would comb her hair into a ponytail, put on some dark glasses, and, taking me by the hand, lead me through the faded streets of the Acapulco red light district (at eight or nine in the morning, while the last drunks were leaving La Huerta or the Pepe Carioca, and women wrapped in towels were leaning over the metallic window frames of tiny rooms to call me "handsome") to the market stalls, along the avenue by the canal. With the exquisite abandon and spleen of a whore who hasn't slept, she bought me an iced chocolate milkshake and two colouring books.

All the men looking at her.

But she was with me.

There, five years old and satiated, I was first introduced to this nightmare: the greed of owning something you're unable to understand.

In retrospect, Mum had a very good and a very bad eye for choosing her suitors. I remember there was an Italian, Renato: he bought me a puppet in a mariachi suit. I remember an Eliezur who once took us to Choya the Clown's circus. She never talked about them. Not with me, I mean. The only method I have of evaluating her love life is observing it in relief against her offspring, each one of whom has a different father.

My eldest sister, Adriana, is the bastard daughter of Isaac Valverde, businessman and pimp extraordinaire, and shareholder in a legendary brothel: La Huerta.

La Huerta was on the other side of the canal. The site covered perhaps half a block. It could have been the opium dream of any wealthy old man who wasn't afraid of catching dysentery or venereal disease. In the seventies, the property consisted of private parking, private security, and three or four halls dispersed among mango and coconut trees—spaces specialised in the various preferences of their clientele. I never learnt what these preferences involved and I expect I can live without finding out. There was also a bar and a restaurant, almost drinkable water and, around the outside, with no neon signs, a large red brick wall that snaked all the way to the end of the Mal Paso alleyway. A wall that delivered you straight to clichés, such was the feeling that it surrounded a medieval fortress. La Huerta was the primitive Acapulcan crossover, a labyrinth/laboratory of what Mexico is these days for the American Way of Life: a gigantic pseudoexotic whorehouse with the infrastructure of a gringo suburb, full of cheap meat that lets you put your finger up its arse and then throw it over the fence when you're done. Once, as we walked along beside the wall, Marisela said to me: "Lobo and Melón used to play shows here."  I knew—as any child knows who has grown up in the immediate vicinity of a brothel—that the deadly weapon of sex lurked behind that bastion. And I had the vague idea that sex emanated a volatile mortification of the flesh, mixed with the everyday, and money, and the racket of the night and the silence of the day. Beyond this shifting and sickening impression, I didn't understand shit. But years later, thanks to things my mum said, I was able to relate sex with music, that other force of nature that rained hatchet blows on misfortune from out of our Stromberg Carlson console.

My elder brother is the son of an informer for the Monterrey judiciary who, at the beginning of the eighties, had already become Commander Jorge Fernández, group leader of the Division of Investigations for the Prevention of Crime. They say he was pretty tough. He was killed in an anti-drugs operation what must be fifteen years ago now. Jorge Junior saw him sporadically. On one of those occasions, when my brother was fourteen, the Commander gave him a motorbike.

My younger brother Saíd, son of Don B, was born on the other side of the world. Don B is a Monterrey gangster, not a particularly important one but very well loved within the trade. To this day, Don B is the kind of washed-up outlaw who got photographed with tequila western stars like Fernando and Mario Almada. He used to be an extraordinarily handsome man—a characteristic my brother inherited—and from an early age he was famous for his skill in a fight. He never hurt my mother, though. My childhood memories locate him buying me toys and treating me with the fullest and purest affection that I ever received from a grown man, so that in a way he became my platonic ideal of a father. Mum maintains that I chose him for her because I started calling him "Dad" before they became lovers. More than twenty years have passed since the last time I saw him. A few weeks ago he sent me an Aldo Conti suit as a gift, accompanied by a note: "For my son Cacho." I never wear suits. Besides, it didn't fit.

At the beginning of the eighties, Mum had a daughter with Armando Rico, a session drummer nicknamed La Calilla. He never met Diana, my little sister: he was so depressed that, one day, he stuffed his belly full of barbiturates after a lover's quarrel. The neighbours found him. They say he was trying to say something into the microphone of a tape recorder and foam was coming out of his mouth. Mum had run off, in one of her classic fits of gypsy hysteria, to Coatzacoalcos or Reynosa, I don't know where, abandoning both her pimp and her children. When she came back to Monterrey, La Calilla was rotting in a cemetery and we owed almost everybody money.

I'm the middle child. My father, Gilberto Membreno, is the least spectacular boyfriend that Marisela had. He started out as a delivery boy for a pharmacy and then became the sales director for various establishments belonging to the Melia hotel company. In 1999, his sanity destroyed by Chivas Regal whisky and Sauza Hornitos tequila, he tried to turn himself into a playboy: he quit his job, married Marta (a Colombian girl the same age as me), bought a '65 Mustang and founded a business that went bankrupt in less than a year. I haven't seen him since.

No sooner do I finish writing this than I feel embarrassed. Not because of the private parts I've been relating, but because my literary technique is deplorable, and the events I'm trying to capture have a sheen of scandalous improbability to them. I am in room 101 of the Saltillo University Hospital, writing in the near-dark. Writing red-handed. My character lies over there trashed because of Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML, as the doctors call it) while I compile this account of her most ridiculous variations. Her brow frowning in the gloom tacitly disapproves of the glint of my laptop, whilst in her dreams she longs, perhaps, for her children's sexless tenderness.

Some time ago, at a cocktail party in Sant Joan de les Abadesses, a Mexican poet and diplomat said to me:

"I read that biographical note that appeared next to one of your stories in an anthology. It entertained me, but I thought it was obscene. I don't understand why you try to pretend that such a horrible fiction is, or ever was, real."

Observations like that one make me pessimistic about the future of the narrative art. We read nothing, and we demand that this nothing comes without subtleties: it must be either vulgar or sublime. Worse: vulgar without clichés, sublime without polysyllables. Aseptically literary. Efficient to the point of frigidity. At best, a postmodern novel is nothing more than nineteenth-century costumbrismo disguised as cool jazz and/or pedantic Kenneth Goldsmith-style speeches that take a hundred pages to say what took Baudelaire three words: spleen et idéal.

The technique, boy, says a voice in my head. Shake up the technique.

To hell with it: when she was young my mum was a shrewd and beautiful Indian who had five husbands: a legendary pimp, a policeman who was shot, a local gangster, a suicidal musician, and a pathetic imitator of Humphrey Bogart. Period.

Her last partner dates back to the beginning of the nineties. We had just moved to Saltillo (this city where today, as it gets light, instead of birdsong I can hear the murmur of the infusion pumps that govern the hospital) when she got together with Margarito J. Hernandez. Journalist. Alcoholic. Ugly man. It didn't last long: my mum didn't love him.

Margarito gave me my first grown-up job: proofreader for a corrupt political magazine. I was seventeen. One day he said to me:

"You have to leave all this shit behind you and get out of Mexico. Because you're going to be a writer. And writers aren't good for anything in this country, they're dead weight."

On reaching her fifties, Marisela decided to accept it: she was alone. Her three eldest children had stopped speaking to her. She had no friends. Not even her children-in-law or her grandchildren visited her. She fractured three bones in the space of a few months. In 1997 she was diagnosed with severe osteoporosis. Little by little, like a person doing something they don't want to do, she began to use her real name: Guadalupe Chávez Moreno. Brand new. Fresh from the childhood trunk.

What none of us knew was that, on symbolically renouncing her fantasy of being Somebody Else, Mum had also decided to age. She never grew into an adult woman. In less than ten years she went from morbid adolescence to premature senility. And that precedent—or rather, that bad habit—is the only property that she will leave to her children.


I leave the hospital after the first thirty-six hours on duty. Monica picks me up in the car. The light of real life feels brutal: raw milk, pulverised and turned into air. Monica asks me to collect the invoices in case they are tax-deductible. She adds that my ex-boss has promised to cover part of the expenses on behalf of the cultural institute. That Maruca has been well behaved but misses me like crazy. That the garden, the ceiba tree, and the jacaranda have just been watered. I don't understand what she's saying: I can't make the emotional connection. I answer yes to everything. Exhaustion. You need the dexterity of a tightrope walker and the zeal of a mentally unbalanced man to doze off in a chair without armrests, far from the wall and close to the reggaeton coming from the radio at the nurses station: c'mon baby girl c'mon out of the closet unzip it all unclip it all ain't no time to be modest take it all off yo or no-one's gonna take your photo. A voice in my head woke me up in the middle of the dawn. It said: "Don't be afraid. Nothing that belongs to you comes from you."  I massaged my neck and closed my eyes again, assuming it had been some hawker's koan pronounced by the fortune teller Mizada Mohamed on the television in the room next door. It isn't reality that makes a person cynical. It's the difficulty of getting to sleep in cities.

We reach home. Monica opens the door, locks the Atos and says:

"After lunch you could come out into the garden for a bit if you like, read and sit in the sun. It's always good news when the sun comes out."

I would like to make fun of my wife for saying such sentimental things. But I don't have the energy. Besides, the sun is falling with a palpable bliss onto my cheeks, onto the recently watered lawn, onto the leaves of the jacaranda . . . I drop down onto the grass. Maruca, our dog, comes prancing and skipping out to greet me. I close my eyes. Being cynical requires rhetoric. Sitting in the sun does not.


Someone wrote her name wrong when they signed her into the emergency ward: Guadalupe "Charles." That's what everyone in the hospital calls her. Guadalupe Charles. At times, when I'm most afraid, I try to convince myself I am watching over the delirium of a stranger.


After endless comings and goings—Google searches, Skype attempts, emails and phonecalls to accounts that no longer exist and lines that are missing a digit—Monica locates my older brother on a mobile phone with the area code for Yokohama, in Japan. She asks him to call me. I pick up. Jorge, solemn, without saying hello, begins:

"Are you all there by her bedside . . . ? You all need to be with her, taking care of her through this difficult time."

I suppose it's so many years since he left the country that he has ended up swallowing the exotic pill, as advertised on the blocks of Abuelita drinking chocolate: There's-No-Bigger-Love-Than-The-Love-Of-The-Big-Mexican-Family. No, I answer. Saíd is destroyed and undoubtedly hooked on some hard drug or other; his circumstances don't tolerate the hospital tension. Monica is serving in the exterior (I want to say in the street, but to me, now, "the street" is immeasurable: hyperspace) as Director of Communications and Logistics for My Mother's Leukaemia. Diana has two babies and can only do one shift every other night. Adriana is still lost: she left home when I was seven, so I don't know her. I've only seen her a couple of times since we've both been adults. The last time was in 1994.

Melodramatic as I am, I add:

"For the past week, my routine has consisted of thirty-six hours straight dozing and writing next to the bed of a dying woman."

What I don't add is: welcome to Apache Nation. Eat your children if you don't want the paleface, the white trash, to corrupt them. The only Family in the country that's still on good terms is based in Michoacán, and it's a clan of narcotraffickers whose members spend their time amputating heads. Jorge, Jorgito, hello—the Big Mexican Family has disintegrated like a pile of stones, Pedro Páramo sliding under Abundio's knife right before Damiana's troubled eyes, and the model on Televisa reciting automatically: "Greetings from XEW at the Celestún lagoon . . . "  Nothing: all that's left is a big fat nothing, sweet fuck all. In this Sweet Homeland where my mother is dying there isn't a single piece of papel picado left to decorate anything. Or a mouthful of tequila that has not been corrupted by the scent of el marketing. Not so much as a sadness or a decency or a disturbance that is not marked, like cattle under the branding iron, by the ghost of an AK-47.

Two nights before we signed Mum into hospital, Monica dreamed we were building a swimming pool next to the fig tree. The rubble we removed in wheelbarrows wasn't dust or rocks: it was human thighs. How strange, I said, I wasn't going to say anything but I dreamed they closed the bridges of the ringroad down to one lane, because in the lane above a truck had tipped over and littered the road with giant human heads that looked like that self-portrait by Ron Mueck. Their eyes were open and their hair was full of blood.

(Over breakfast President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa appears on the national TV channel informing us of his government's achievements, the optimistic statistics that he considers—obviously—to be more relevant than a hundred thousand nightmares.)

Jorge asks:

"Are you prepared . . . ?" And continues, "It's a natural process. Don't despair. It's the cycle of life."

As if I were interested in clichés. I remember an ominous verse by Juan Carlos Bautista: "It will rain heads over Mexico." Was he talking about the people killed in La Marquesa? Or the Ron Mueck self-portrait? Was he talking about my mother's leukaemia..? It will rain heads over Mexico. I don't know what planet this Japanese man with the same surname as me is living on. Of course I'm prepared. Has La Familia left me with any other option?

Every household buzzes around the base of a domestic myth. It could be anything: academic excellence, a passion for football. I grew up in the shadow of a dramatic irony: pretending that my family was really a family.

Jorge left home when I turned thirteen. I don't remember meeting him until I was three. (To paraphrase Chesterton: what I know about my birth has been passed down to me through the oral tradition, so it may be untrue.)  That left us a period of ten years together. However, Mum was never satisfied with simply going gallivanting around the country: she would generally choose one of her children (often me; years later my younger sister) to accompany her on her orgies of railway travel. Meanwhile, the others were left with relatives and/or in the houses of "ladies of confidence": dreadful, hirsute maids who taught us to love Charles Dickens in the land of the Indians. There was a Miss Amparo from Monterrey who advised me to prepare myself, because when I grew up I was going to be gay. She said it to free herself in advance of any guilt about her oldest son's audacious attempts to rape me. In Querétaro there was a Doña Duve who, in order to have Saíd with her forever (she spoilt him because he was the youngest and the most handsome), kept him kidnapped in a loft for four days, eating and drinking on the floor with his ankle tied to the bannister. Another woman, in Monclova, made us renounce our childhood nicknames (Coco, Cachito, Pumita) or have our backsides beaten with a cane.

I'm sure such mistreatment wasn't pure cruelty. It was caused in part by their frustration at how Mum would go weeks without paying for our upkeep.

So all in all I only lived with Jorge, this Nippon kid who embodies the most sacred father figure I will ever know, for half a dozen years and a few summer holidays. Now he's over forty. I'm almost thirty-eight. And now supposedly I have to write him a letter that begins like this: "Sadly, the predictions have been fulfilled: Lupita is suffering from leukaemia. I am sorry for giving you this news without also being able to give you a hug."

(Always, with him, I call her Lupita. Not to distance myself from her: to distance myself from him. How can you tell a foreigner you hardly know that their mother, your mother, is dying . . . ?)

After an initial circumlocution, I ask him for money. I finish the letter and send it by email, then close my laptop and leave the hospital with Monica. We have an hour and a half for lunch. We go to a department store—a Vips. She orders:

"Please could you tell me which dish will be ready the quickest?"

"Of course, señorita. We're here to help. Whatever we can offer you."

"The quickest dish, please."

"Well . . . Might I suggest the grilled chicken breast, if that takes your fancy? Or the marinated steak with tortilla chips. We have various kinds of hamburgers, all delicious. Or are you wanting something a bit lighter? We have a light menu here. We also have the mole sauce festival, four different di . . . No . . . ? Of course, señorita. But meanwhile, can I perhaps offer you a starter?  How does a nice spring roll sound? Would you like to order your dessert now . . . ?"

The food takes an eternity. When it arrives, two waiters, the kitchen boy, and the beardless deputy manager come to our table and unleash an intoxicating stream of apologies. Can you imagine a similar scene in Paris or Havana . . . ? Of course not. Which just goes to show, among other things, that the Mexican Revolution was a fiasco: the primary objective of real revolutions is to turn the waiters into bad-mannered despots.

When the food finally arrives, Mo and I are in a foul mood. We don't enjoy the meal and we leave the table in a hurry. While I am paying the bill, the cashier, falling over herself with politeness, asks us whether we could possibly if it wouldn't be too much trouble fill in a little form which is just aiming to improve with every passing day the service the company offers aspiring of course constantly to excellence. She points out two small metal signs hanging on the wall: "Mission" and "Vision": again, this omni-incompetent keeping up with the Joneses, ISO 9000 a la mexicana, greeting us with the stench of Carlos Slim still wet from washing in the malfunctioning bathrooms of fifty million undernourished clients. All of Mexico is the land of the cruel.

Suddenly I realise: I am one of them. This restaurant service is a metaphor for the letter I have just written to my Japanese brother. I am a waiter in a country of waiters. Sometimes my colleagues appear in Forbes magazine, sometimes it's enough for them to drape a presidential sash across their chest. Same thing: here, we waiters all uphold the civic norm of spitting in your soup. First we waste your time with our proverbial good manners. Then we waste your time with criminal stupidity.

Welcome to the Sweet Homeland.

Tip please.

translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott