We look to art for its humanizing endeavor to bring into the light of consciousness the unrepresentable, the unthinkable.
The vampire offers a handy metaphor for this purpose, because it is neither dead nor alive. It is the undead. And like any reconciliation of opposites, it is unthinkable.
With my work-in-progress, Reluctant Mirror, I’m using that perennially popular literary figure and its morbidly related kin the ghost to represent depression – specifically, the inconsolable depletion of depression.
Ever been really depressed? The tide of stars pulls and falls within that darkness, sometimes for years.
Reluctant Mirror illuminates this dark dissolve as a terrible failure of the will to power, a seemingly irreversible catastrophe of incompleteness and spiritlessness.
Jordan Cross, a college freshman, explored a remote area of Florida with his girlfriend, Eva Evangeli. During one of their romantic interludes in the wilderness, vampires set upon them.
Jordan escaped, wounded, and became a vampire: Cruz Jordan.
Eva, savagely slain, persists as a revenant, which haunts him with survivor guilt – and the spiritual ruin of the wish to be human again.
In this pre-dawn scene, the narrator, Cruz, who thus far has avoided drinking human blood, has just escaped an attack by Father Kieran, a vampire hunter.
I wandered into alleys and back lanes. Hunger sharpened in me. Unless I avoided people, I would feed – I had gotten that depleted, that sucked up into vampyr need.
Instinct urged me to get across town, to my narrow keep under the elevated roadway of East River Drive. I felt safe there, high off the ground and yet buried under traffic in a claustrophobic crypt.
Actually, it was a concrete niche, more like an oversize seam between the road bed and the span’s undercarriage. No one living could squeeze in there.
Would I always have to hide from the day in crawlspaces? Always avoid hot cross buns, Phillips head screws and vengeful priests? Crave human blood always?
I wanted to be human again. I fully intended to rejoin the living. That was my daily ambition among the undead in those early days – or I should say nights.
But maybe there was no way back to my humanity. Maybe, like the moon in abandoned solitude at the end of the alley, I stood apart. Forever.
Even if I completely avoided human blood, I would never be human again. Was that true?
In the bereaved dark, I could smell my fear. I needed more information.
The internet, libraries, bookstores offered nothing about vampyrs. Father Kieran was the only person I’d met who seemed to know. I pondered how I might find him – and not get killed by him.
How did the undead die?
The ferocity twisting in me and calling itself hunger promised I would die unless I fed soon. I knew this wasn’t true. Hunger scorches the vampyr, until the mind chars black.
I had experienced that in Florida, in those first terrible and chaotic nights as a vampyr, when I was so shocked I refused to feed at all. By the fourth night, blood lust had seared my mind black. And when I woke from that blackout, I had fed.
If Eva had not kept us in the swamp park and if there had been people anywhere near, I would have awakened to more gruesome remains than the ripped throat of a white-tailed deer.
Eva’s clarity had kept us from killing people and probably getting killed at the beginning of this nightmare. Since then, something in her had broken.
Dressed in defeat, Eva stood at the end of the alley. Her silhouette against the moon looked flimsy. I knew if I peered into her face I’d see bad things. Dullness. Emptiness. Her mind small as a whisper.
Better not to look, I figured and stepped from the alley onto a side street.
Blood gleamed in the air.
The carnal scent of human hearts pumping came from a city road crew filling potholes upwind. The hot stench of asphalt only heightened by contrast the bodyheat pulsing on the night breeze. Hunger scorched me, and I scurried across the street into the next dark alley.
What moved me?
It sounds simple: The vampyr in me flared with voracious appetite, while my humanity ignored that need and walked stiffly away.
How could my human nature defy my vampyr identity? I am undead. Feeding on human blood is the common call and basic order of my kind. But that night, I hadn’t yet sorted out what is living from what isn’t for the undead.
And that confusion derails my narrative. I mean, who is narrating these events? Am I the vampyr or the human? Or is it obvious, I am undead – and therefore anything I write about my human life is memory and fantasy.
Do you see the problem? How reliable is the memory of being human for a nonhuman?
Writing all this down is supposed to show you the real life of the undead. If human nature is false memory for a vampyr, I’ve reached a point in my writing where I’m less sure who ‘you’ are (if you’re human) – and what I mean by ‘real.’
Who made me defy the vampyr’s impulse to stalk my prey? The road crew had parked a gravel truck alongside a manhole, providing a convenient screen for taking down and carrying underground the first worker to stray out of sight.
Who forced me into the alley and set me running into a dementia of shadows?
Can I sort that out? Can I know who is writing this?
Who remembers that lane of recycle bins and supercans as ‘a dementia of shadows?’
I’m not trying to be obtuse. I’m the one who fled down the alley with the moon behind me and building security lights throwing shadows. Except mine. Something noble held my heart fast when I took the risk of running away from food. I’m just having trouble remembering what that ‘something’ was. And why I think it was noble.
Earlier, I’d written that something in Eva had broken. I think it was the same ‘something’ I’ve forgotten. I want to say ‘humanity.’ That was what I had studied in college. Not the humanities but humanity, the kind of thinking that makes a mind human.
It’s called critical theory. I had become obsessed with what people think they know and how knowledge promotes or inhibits action.
This is humanity’s dark glamour, what people wrongly believe is noble: morality, passionate intensity, certainty. Like Father Kieran, so sure vampyrs must be destroyed. Or like me that night, certain that I had to avoid drinking human blood – even if it meant losing my mind.
My human mind.
I see now. Writing all this down shows you that the real life of the undead is about losing the human mind. I am a body without a soul – and writing is a soul without a body. With these words, I’m really trying to meet my absence.
Is that the truth?
The truth is punishment for having a secret. In those first weird nights as a vampyr, I thought I could be human again. Trying to write this now, I realize I’m writing about my absence, the lost ‘I’ that once was human. That was my secret, until the truth took me to the boundary of myself.
This is confusing. Let me start again.
Father Kieran’s crucifix had damaged me, left me crazy for my crawlspace. So my dead girlfriend, Eva, surprised me when she spoke from behind with such care and dignity, “You’re more scared than hurt, Jordie.”
Sometimes I heard her disembodied voice. Usually just mewling or weeping. Spooky grief sounds. After losing so much strength from the crucifix attack, I didn’t expect to hear anything cogent from her. So I didn’t bother turning around.
I kept my attention among the exaggerated shadows cast by the alley’s motion-sensing lights. All this illumination assured me the homeless had no sanctuary here and I wouldn’t stumble on any alley-sleepers to test my abstinence. I moved quickly to the next street.
“Won’t you talk with me?”
“Wait a bit,” I urged. “We’re almost there.”
We had walked through the early morning hours and made it to Cherry Street, within sight of the access ramp that led to my narrow refuge under the el.
Three pre-dawn bicyclists flurried past, silent as souls.
“Don’t go up there yet.” Eva beckoned in a voice without force. “I’m not tired.”
How could that be? She should have been dead silent with fatigue or else ranting after what Kieran did to us.
When I turned about, I found her ghost leaning against a brick wall, naked. Her black hair against her pale skin shone with a luster almost like heat. Even the tuft between her thighs glowed softly, a glossy flame of black fire.
Reading my gaze, she smiled and lowered her eyes, hiding the light in her face. “You still think I’m beautiful?” Then she gave me a mischievous look from under her dark eyebrows. “Sexy?”
This was how we had held onto each other during those two months she had been dead and I undead. If she could arouse me sexually that meant I was still human. Vampyrs lust for blood not sex.
Surprise, not desire, thickened in me. I gazed at her, at how vivid she appeared. A vivid ghost, irreducibly present. How was that possible, as depleted as we were?
She cupped her breasts in her hands and thumbed the pink tulips of her aureoles. “Am I sexy?”
I spoke as if I were a man, “Of course. You’re stunning.”
“I’m dead.” She gave a crooked smile, as if mocking my necrophilia.
Irony? Eva’s ghost really was strong despite Kieran’s assault.
On our best nights, Eva got witty. Witty and wounded, clasping her human joy as a tool for her ghost to work on our sincerity, she laughed at how love had led us here – to where she was bodiless and I lifeless.
We usually used the emanations we’d gathered from the living to remember making love. Holding onto the feeling of being human, we had these graphic replays of our sexual intimacies from the life we’d lost.
We often took our passion to the top of the Manhattan Bridge Arch. Sculptural panels on the sides of the Arch depict winged female spirits of Industry and Commerce, which to Eva looked like angels. She liked making love with angels guarding us from below. Like we were in heaven already.
Up there on those nights, the city dazzled against the scarlet night. The river below offered utter darkness, infinite space constrained by the glittering dreams of the living.
On those shining nights, we touched. I know. It was unreal. She was a ghost after all. But with all those emanations of the living, we remembered life. And she remembered her nakedness and her passion. Real passion, like when we were alive. Maybe more real, because we remembered it so well.
She rode me during those trysts like she used to do in the dorm when my roommate was away – or the way we coupled in the remote tree coves at night, where the vampyr ultimately found us.
She rode me with her hair down, falling across her shoulders, swaying over her face and breasts. And when she was ready, she would pull at my shoulders, and we’d roll over, and I’d ride her to climax, with her body slippery and fragrant under me, not a ghost at all.
Or so it seemed.
Afterward, in the ceremonious silence, with the sounds of the city a tapestry all around us, we shared a look of love.
I’d never seen love, actually seen it. I did then. She loved me, the man.
When we made love on those special nights, when she aroused me, I was human again. And when she looked at me that way, with those large, peaceful eyes empty of sadness, full of triumph at reclaiming me, I’d never felt so alive.
All of it was an illusion, of course – a fantasy shared between the dead and the undead.
Eva knew that, too. And that’s when she would make her anguished jokes about a love greater than death and how I obviously didn’t love her for her body because she didn’t have one.
As our spent emanations wafted away in the treacherous predawn light and my lover returned to emptiness, to the nothing I imagined was her satisfied place, scorn abundantly replaced joy in my heart. I was a vampyr. I had no right to love.
Each time that I slinked back to my crypt after those erotic episodes, I wasn’t thinking about love. Revisiting sex as a vampyr had helped convince me I could be human again. After Father Kieran’s attack, I wasn’t so sure.
Eva saw that in my face the night of the assault. In the last tattered minutes of dark before dawn, she saw that. She didn’t stir from where she leaned against the brick wall.
Her improbable beauty, her nakedness shone like an omen, like a vision that had matured in a dream and entered waking life to mean more than it seemed.
I’m writing nonsense. Because as five o’clock in the morning came to an end that Sunday, her nakedness didn’t move me as before. These last few weeks of pretending I was a man, reminiscing the heat and muscularity of sex, seemed wrong. The very idea of lust pressed on me like a bad thing, a cruel indulgence. Nonsense.
Eva read all that in my face or in my heart, which I’m confident she perceived even more clearly. And she nodded once with disconsolate understanding. “The priest knows you’re a vampyr.”
She stepped toward me, her nakedness disappearing into an airy white dress pleated, tucked and mere as origami. “The priest knows. Maybe he’ll help us.”
Behind her, down the alley, the moon’s fullness shimmered between buildings. Sylphs and masked dancers in harlequin pajamas frolicked there, small with distance and black in the lunar light like notes of music.
Sadness broke through me. Mortal sadness. “You’re dead. And I’m a vampyr. No priest can help us.”
“Don’t say that.” Wonder wedged her eyes wider. “I felt grace tonight. From the priest. And the crucifix.”
She placed her palm against my cheek, and benevolence flowed. “I know the crucifix hurt you. But look at me. Jordie. Look at how strong and clear I am. The crucifix hurt you. But it made me strong.”
My attention was down the alley. I thought I had glimpsed movement, smelled blood heat. Even though the security lights still blazed, I saw no one.
The low moon glistened like lychee meat.
“Why won’t you look at me? Do I have to be naked for you to see me?”
“Eva, I’m sorry. I’m scattered. I didn’t expect to see you at all after what the priest did.”
“I know. I’ve been trying to show you.”
“That the crucifix hurt me. But it didn’t. My faith protected me.”
“I’m confused, Eva. I don’t know what to believe.”
“You always know what you believe, Jordie. It’s the vampyr that’s hurt and confused.”
“We need information.”
“Information? Or protection?” She spoke in a voice clouded with worry. “The priest hurt you. He got the vampyr’s attention. You want to see the priest for the wrong reason. For information that will protect the vampyr.”
“No. I’m not a vampyr.” I sounded unconvinced, even to myself. “I haven’t tasted human blood. I’m still a man, Eva. I need to find out what he knows.”
“He may only know how to kill you.” She held my face in both of her intangible hands. “But then your soul will go to heaven.”
She waited, hoping that silence would prompt me to agree.
The man in me didn’t believe in heaven. The vampyr didn’t care.
Her eyebrows bent sadly. “If that’s the only way to help you, Jordie, will you let him kill you? Will you join me?”
“I don’t believe in heaven.”
Her expression went from hurt to defiant to a sudden smile of recognition. “That sounds like the man I love. You don’t want to go on as a vampyr, do you? What if you already are a vampyr whether you drink human blood or not? What if you can only be a vampyr? We’ll die together, Jordie? Like we agreed?”
“We’ll talk to the priest.”
“You’ve promised me that before.”
“This time, there is a priest who knows about us.”
“He hurt you. He looked like he wanted to kill you.”
“He was trying to protect his flock.”
The lights in the alley went off. The building behind which the moon had disappeared glowed with an aluminum aura. Somewhere far over New Jersey, the Bornless Realm pranced onward following the night.
A few moon sylphs lingered in the alley, suffering little things, fluttery and blistered, like sea anemones singed with a cigarette. I’d noticed before, as the lunar night moved on, weaker sylphs got left behind.
A few times, after amorous recollections of when we were alive, after Eva had disappeared into her satisfied place, I would breathe on the frail sylphs whatever emanations remained. They brightened. Briefly. Then flared away like magician’s flash paper.
What were they?
What were we?
“You’re more scared than hurt, Jordie.” The intelligence in Eva’s clear eyes penetrated my misery. “But there’s nothing to fear. Don’t you see? Grace has brought us to this moment.”
My hand still throbbed from the crucifix. No grace there. “Who are you?”
I actually expected an answer. She stood there as if listening.
“I don’t know who I am either.”
“You’re Jordan Cross. You’re the man I love.”
The chill that went through me was so cold it felt like electricity. A subway rumbled by on the elevated tracks. I barely heard it. “I’m not Jordan anymore. I’m Cruz now. I’m a vampyr.”
“No. There’s a way out.”
I wanted to tell her I didn’t trust priests. I wanted to admit I was more scared than hurt. I said nothing. I only nodded. I noticed how her eyes had gotten still, her pupils dilated. She needed affirmation. And maybe she was right. Maybe the priest had answers. And maybe the answer was death.
I didn’t understand at first. Her set gaze was not reaching into me for agreement. She was staring beyond me, down Cherry Street to the public housing buildings in the east. Dawn painted pink the shelves of clouds between the bulky buildings.
Eva shifted her attention, and the ferocious sparkle in her dark eyes fixed me in sharper focus. “Or stay. Stay, my love. And we’ll end this sorrow now.”
I reached for her. Of course, I touched nothing. Felt nothing. And I felt everything, everything she meant to me. All of that a ghost. Why not stay on the street with her, wait for the sun to end this? For the undead, death is a power greater.
The sickly moon sylphs in the alley bobbled higher, as if reaching for the first rays of killing light to end their misery.
Watching them, I felt the ignition of something imperative in the empty place where my heart had once thrived. I wanted to know.
What were these things? What was this nocturnal phantom world outside the common reality of the living? Who were these protoplasmic shapeshifters and pied dwarfs moving about the city unnoticed by citizens? Into what higher dimension did they vanish when they turned sideways? What were they laughing at in the moon shadows, those outlandish harlequins with their mirthful lips stained blue? Was I part of their cosmic joke?
I wasn’t ready to die. I wanted answers.
Sadness lightly touched Eva’s face. “Go.”
From under the protective shade of the elevated road, I looked back. Sunlight inflamed the summits of buildings and flared in rigid stars from top story windows.
My eyes burned. I retreated deeper into the blue shadows cast by the bridge.
Eva didn’t budge. She stood erect, proud to face me with the form and countenance of a living woman.
In that incandescent moment, seeing her daring the day to claim her, I never loved her more, never felt more sure why I had taken her love into my care and why I could never betray or forsake her.
A morning breeze off the East River rippled her silky dress and breathed through her long hair. Daylight descended into the sidestreet and struck her full on. As if in collusion with reality, a shadow briefly threw her shape onto the sidewalk.
She put a hand to her heart, swept that hand toward me and vanished.