Image credit: Normal Gergley, "Space Administration #6" : mixed media

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For María Gala, my Maga

            The scent of humidity, of stale air, of cold sweat, of well-aged decay. The mother lays the girl down in the room’s only bed, the same bed where she will receive this shift’s lover. She turns off the light, feels her way around, undresses, cracks the door; everything is smells, light whispers, muffled rocking of the mattress, like a throbbing lullaby.

            The girl falls asleep immediately; the mother forbids her to wake up. Still she wakes up every night. She wakes up for a moment, when the bed suddenly stops rocking, always abruptly. She listens to panting breaths at her side, listens to her own heartbeats grow and expand through her whole body, through the bitter stench, the panic. But she doesn’t move, she hardly breathes, she doesn’t dare provoke her mother’s rage.

            During the day she searches for signs that it wasn’t a dream, that she’s not dealing with a nightmare repeating night after night, but no clues remain, or she doesn’t know where to find them, and so she continues on, uncertain, with never-ending suspicion, with permanent fear.

            The house, the smell of the closed-in house, the heavy stuffy smell noticeable even from the outside, in her clothes and her hair, like a chronic whiff, an imprint. “You stink,” the grandmother would tell her, when the father would take her some Sunday, a rare occurrence. The large dark grandmother would heat water and scour her body with herbs, leaving her clean skin burning. She would apply powders and perfume, cut her fingernails and toenails, clothe her in the cousins’ dresses and send her to the entryway for the rest of the afternoon. The cousins next to her, with dolls in fancy dresses or with tiny play kitchens or with coloring books and markers, would ignore her, and she would ignore them too, not out of indifference or pride, but fear.

            Only on returning to her home would the girl perceive its foulness; she could recognize it even before opening the door, from the outside hall, the acrid waft. Soon it would become normal again.


            The mother sleeps in late, and the girl gets up cautiously, slides toward the corner where she has her empire: torn sheets of paper, a dull pencil stub, empty matchboxes to build furniture for her paper dolls. She reigns over a vast paper family, growing ever more extended, yet ever closer to each other: they marry, have children, grandchildren, they’re very happy. They have traces of her own family, Mom the mother, Dad the father, Grandma, the Cousins, all delightful, all loving. She spends much of her time with the paper lineage; she knows them increasingly well, loves them more and more, feels them to be real, as if they’re replacing the actual world, coming into being, constituting a genuine domestic sphere, a safe, warm space.

            When the mother wakes up, she gives her milk and bread, then leaves. The fear becomes stronger: it’s in the trail of humidity on the walls and in the screams from the madman downstairs and in the spider webs hanging from the ceiling. The girl with all her paper relatives takes shelter from the fear in the bathroom, with a window facing the street. In the bathroom there’s a little light, a subtle breeze, sounds enter from the outside world, sounds that don’t frighten.

            Sometimes the mother stays home. The mother orders her to move from one place to another, walking behind the girl, seemingly with purpose as she tries to tidy the room. The mother sweeps and wipes, stirring dust, rustling cockroaches. The girl watches the mother, watches her face, drained, sweaty, her mouth twisted in a grimace of exasperation, until she sees the mother collapse, all of her efforts collapse, so useless, so limited.

            The mother cries in the middle of the bed, covering her face with both hands. She cries and curses through her fingers, her shoulders shudder, her voice is thin, depleted. The girl observes her from the corner, huge eyes, steady, tearless. She never cries, not even when she watches the mother cry and it looks like she’s going to die, like she is already dead, that nothing else can happen after that. But it continues, it lasts for an eternity, more than an eternity; the girl fades, she falls asleep at some point and when the mother, tired of crying, lifts her head and sees the girl asleep, she shakes her, wakes her up, tells her she’s heartless, tells her she doesn’t love her mother, tells her to hug and kiss her. The girl understands then that what happened wasn’t death, and with detached resignation puts her arms around the mother’s neck and waits for everything to finally end so she can finally stop dying.


            Paper Mom only cries from happiness. The girl cries from happiness too, sometimes, when she hugs Paper Mom. They embrace and say tender things. Then paper Dad gets home and takes them to Grandma’s house. Paper Grandma has lunch made for them, all the delicious things the girl likes. The paper Cousins play with the girl in the entryway. The girl has lots of dolls and lets the Cousins borrow them. She lends them her dresses too; she has dresses to spare, in every color, and the Cousins tell her she’s the best cousin in the world, that they love her lots and lots and to come back soon. The Grandma gives her a kiss on each cheek, confesses she’s her favorite granddaughter, and slips her a package of candy when she leaves. The girl returns home with her paper parents, bathes, puts on violet perfume, goes to bed in a bed that’s hers, just hers. Paper Mom tucks her in, tells her a story about princesses, and Paper Dad sings her a song playing the guitar. Paper Mom and Dad smile and kiss, then lean down to kiss the girl. They wait for her to fall asleep, and soon tiptoe to their big bed.

            Sometimes the paper relatives fall apart from so much affection; the neck tears, their weakest part, and the girl fashions them anew. She draws large eyes and a smiling mouth. Every time one of them falls apart, the girl remakes them, but she never throws out the old ones; she keeps them in her shoebox of treasures. It holds the remains of many paper relatives, but the one that has been remade the most, from so much hugging, is Paper Mom; there’s nothing sweeter than hugging paper Mom and telling her sweet things.


            One day, on one of those fitful tidyings the mother grabs the shoebox with the girl’s treasures and in one swoop dumps everything into a bag of trash, along with the junk accumulated in the corners. In a blur the girl watches as her drawings disappear, her matchbox furniture, her two-colored pencil the father gave her, and her entire paper family. She doesn’t get upset, doesn’t utter a sound, no protest or complaint, only replays over and over in her head the motion of the mother tossing her belongings into the bag. The mother continues moving chaotically around her, picking things up and putting things down, but the girl doesn’t see the mother anymore, only the despised being that dispossessed her of her world. More than ever before she feels horror, a painful horror that constricts her breath, clouds her vision, shakes her limbs. She stalks the despised being with her eyes, studies its every movement, waits motionless for it to come close, for it to bend down to pick up something off the floor, its neck so close, so exposed and fragile, and in one bestial leap the girl snags it in her jaws, bites down hard, squeezes her eyes shut to endure the bucking and ramming, twisting blows from the being that fights to rip her off, but it’s no use; the girl has channeled all her force into that bite, all the force of her resentment and her deprivations, her fears and her love.

            They fall together, for the first time truly together, daughter and mother, for the first time in their lives, united in a real embrace, and that flowing blood, that incessant stench.

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Para mi María Gala, mi Maga

            El aroma a la humedad, a rancio, a frío sudor, a corrupción añeja. La madre acuesta a la niña en la única cama del cuarto, la misma cama donde recibirá al amante de turno, apaga la luz, se mueve a tientas, se desnuda, entreabre la puerta; todo es olores, susurros leves, amortiguado balanceo del colchón, como un acunar palpitante.

            La niña se duerme en seguida, la madre le prohibe despertar, sin embargo, despierta, todas las noches despierta por un instante, cuando de pronto la cama para de mecerse, siempre bruscamente, escucha los alientos intemperantes a su lado, escucha los latidos de su corazón que crece y se expande por todo el cuerpo y el hedor agrio y el pánico. Sin embargo no se mueve, apenas respira, no se atreve a enfrentar la ira de la madre.

            Por el día busca huellas para comprobar que no era un sueño, que no se trata de la pesadilla que se repite noche tras noche, pero no quedan indicios o no sabe dónde hallarlos y sigue así, con la duda, en una eterna sospecha, en un permanente susto.

            La casa, el olor de la casa encerrada, el olor pesado que se percibe incluso fuera de la casa, en las ropas y el pelo como un tufillo crónico, como un sello. “Apestas”, le decía la abuela cuando el padre se la llevaba algún domingo, muy ocasional. La abuela grande y prieta calentaba agua y le raspaba el cuerpo con un estropajo de hierbas, hasta dejar la piel encendida. Le untaba talcos y colonia, le recortaba las uñas de manos y pies, la vestía con batas de las primas y la sentaba en el portal el resto de la tarde. Las primas a su lado con muñecas de trajes elegantes o con minúsculos juegos de cocina o con libros de colorear y plumones, la ignoraban y ella también las ignoraba, no por indiferencia ni orgullo: por miedo.

            Sólo al regreso de la calle, la niña distinguía la fetidez del hogar, la reconocía desde el pasillo, antes de abrir la puerta, un soplo acre, luego se volvía otra vez costumbre.


            La madre duerme hasta tarde y la niña se levanta cautelosa, se desliza para el rincón donde tiene su imperio: retazos de hojas, algún mocho de lápiz, cajas vacías de fósforos con las que arma muebles para sus muñecos de papel. Posee una gran familia de papel, cada vez más grande y unida; se casan, nacen hijos, nietos, son muy felices. Tienen rasgos de su propia familia, de la madre que es la Mamá, del padre, el Papá, la Abuela, las Primas, todos encantadores, cariñosos. Pasa gran parte del tiempo con su estirpe de papel; cada vez los conoce mejor y los quiere más, cada vez los siente más reales, como si fueran remplazando el mundo auténtico, materializándose, conformando un sólido círculo doméstico, un espacio seguro y cálido.

            Cuando la madre la despierta, le da leche, pan y se va. El miedo se hace más grande, está en el dibujo de la humedad de las paredes y en los gritos del loco del piso de abajo y en las telarañas que cuelgan del techo. La niña con todos sus parientes de papel se refugia del miedo en el baño, donde está la única ventana que da a la calle, hay un poco de luz, una sutil corriente de aire, entran los ruidos del mundo exterior, ruidos que no espantan.

            Algunas veces la madre se queda. Le exige moverse de un lado a otro, anda de un lado a otro detrás de la niña como a propósito, mientras intenta poner la casa en orden, barre y sacude, levantando polvo, alborotando a las cucarachas. La niña la observa, observa su cara fatigada, sudorosa, la boca torcida en una mueca de fastidio, hasta que la ve derrumbarse, ve derrumbarse todo su colosal intento, tan inútil, tan limitado.

            La madre llora en el medio de la cama, tapándose la cara con ambas manos, la madre llora y maldice entre los dedos, sus hombros se estremecen, su voz es fina, exasperante. La niña la mira desde cualquier rincón, los ojos enormes, fijos, sin lágrimas, no llora nunca, ni siquiera cuando mira llorar a la madre y le parece que va a morir, que ya ha muerto, que no puede pasar nada después de eso. Pero dura, se prolonga por una eternidad, por más de una eternidad, la niña se desvanece, se queda dormida en algún momento y cuando la madre, cansada de llorar, levanta la cabeza y ve a la niña dormida, la sacude, la despierta, le dice que es un insensible, que no quiere a su madre, que la abrace y la bese, entonces la niña comprende que aquello no era la muerte, con pasiva renuncia pasa los brazos alrededor del cuello de la madre y espera a que todo acabe de acabar para acabar de morir.


            Su Mamá de papel sólo llora de felicidad. La niña también llora de felicidad, algunas veces, cuando abraza a su Mamá de papel. Se abrazan y se dicen cosas tiernas. Después llega el Papá de papel y las lleva a casa de Abuela. Abuela de papel les tiene preparado un almuerzo, todas las cosas ricas que le gustan a la niña. Las Primas de papel juegan con la niña en el portal. La niña tiene muchas muñecas y se las presta a las Primas. También les presta sus batas, tiene batas de sobra, una de cada color y las Primas le dicen que ella es la mejor Prima del mundo, que la quieren mucho, mucho, que vuelva pronto. La Abuela le da un beso en cada mejilla, le confiesa que es su niña más querida y le regala un paquete de caramelos para el camino. La niña regresa con los padres de papel a casa, se baña, se echa perfume de violetas, se acuesta en una cama que es su cama para ella sola, la Mamá la tapa, le hace un cuento de princesas y el papá le canta una canción tocando la guitarra. La Mamá y el Papá se dan un beso sonriendo, luego se inclinan y besan a la niña. Esperan a que se duerma, entonces se van en puntillas de pie para su cama grande.

            A veces de tanto abrazar a los familiares de papel estos se rompen, se les raja el cuello, el lugar más débil y la niña los confecciona nuevos. Le pinta unos ojos muy grandes y una boca sonriente. Cada vez que se le rompe alguien la niña vuelve a hacerlo, pero nunca bota a los viejos: los guarda en la caja de zapatos de sus caudales. Tiene muchos restos de parientes de papel, pero la que más se repite es la Mamá, de tanto abrazarla; no hay nada más dulce que abrazar a Mamá de papel y decirle cosas tiernas.


            Un día, en una de esas recogidas espasmódicas la madre con un solo gesto agarra la caja de zapatos con los tesoros de la niña y la vacía en el bolso donde echaba la basura acumulada por los rincones. De un solo golpe la niña ve desaparecer sus dibujos y los muebles de cajas de fósforos y el lápiz de dos colores que le había dado el padre, y a toda su familia de papel. No se inmuta, no emite ni un sonido, ninguna queja o lamento, solo repite y repite mentalmente el ademán de la madre al arrojar sus bienes al bolso. La madre sigue moviéndose caóticamente a su alrededor, la madre recoge y acomoda, pero la niña no ve más a la madre, solo al ser atroz que la ha privado de su mundo. Más que nunca antes siente horror, un horror doloroso que le impide respirar, le nubla la vista, le sacude los miembros. Acecha al ser atroz con los ojos, estudia cada uno de sus desplazamientos, espera inmóvil a que quede cerca, se incline para levantar del piso cualquier objeto, el cuello muy cerca, el cuello descubierto y frágil, y de un solo salto bestial la niña prende en él la dentadura, aprieta largamente, aguantando ciegamente los tirones y embestidas, las contorciones, golpes del ser que lucha por arrancársela, pero no hay forma, la niña ha puesto todas sus fuerzas en esa mordida, todas las fuerzas de su rencor y sus carencias, de sus miedos y su amor.

            Caen juntas, por primera vez realmente juntas, niña y madre, por primera vez en la vida, de las dos, unidas en un abrazo real, y ese fluir de sangre, y ese olor que no cesa.

Translator Notes

In the 1990s, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Cuba suffered a cataclysmic economic crisis that reshaped life on the island. An aesthetic of “dirty realism” arose in the literature of the so-called “Special Period,” with authors like Pedro Juan Gutiérrez and Zoé Valdés shocking/entertaining readers with scenes of deprivation, decay, and sexualized exoticism – literature written from the island but published abroad and marketed for foreign consumption. The tragedy presented in Anna Lidia Vega Serova’s “Paper Family” represents an important departure from those dynamics. While this story bears witness to human suffering amidst material hardship, Vega Serova’s writing is intensely preoccupied by the complexities of her characters’ emotional lives, presenting challenging subject matter for critical reception by a Cuban readership.

            When we spoke in July 2017 at her apartment in Central Havana, Vega Serova underscored the importance to her that all of her writing has been published first in Cuba, before considering later releases by non-Cuban presses. She identifies strongly as a Cuban writer for Cuban readers, distancing her own work from the exploitation of “dirty realism.”

            Vega Serova’s Cubanness comes with a transnational backstory. Born in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) to a Russian mother and Cuban father, Vega Serova lived in Havana from infancy through age nine, then in Belarus until age twenty-one, completing a degree in Visual Arts before returning to Cuba permanently in 1989, mere weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall would permanently alter the island’s economic and cultural course. It was in Cuba that Vega Serova became a self-styled writer, almost by chance, at the urging of a friend submitting the stories that would win her Cuba’s prestigious Premio David in 1997 and become her first publication, Bad Painting (UNIÓN, 1998).

             “Paper Family,” the story presented here, was originally published as “Estirpe de papel” in Imperio doméstico (Letras Cubanas, 2005) and was reprinted as the title story of a 2013 collection from Ediciones Callejón, which gathered the author’s personal favorites from among her seven previous collections. In translating this story to English, one major challenge was in rendering the intimate tone of the third-person narrator who portrays a mother-daughter relationship stained by emotional and physical neglect. The narrator brings us disturbingly close to what the characters feel, see, smell, and fear. The reader experiences these sensations from a perspective that is distanced but not detached, watchful but not voyeuristic, sympathetic but not exculpatory.

David Lisenby