SO DOES THE STONE is an entrance. Something like a mark on the ground. But let me tell you the story from the beginning: two months ago I met a Mexican poet at a party and I cannot stop thinking about her words. Maybe she is flirting with me, I thought at first, but now I wonder if she was warning me about the terrible threat that breathes underneath Philadelphia. I do not want to take a chance of misunderstanding her so I began to sign the city.
On Thursday night I went to the party. The invitation from Helen arrived on Monday, but I did not decide to go until the last minute. I do not like social meetings very much. It was a farewell party for two Spanish artists who had been working on an art project at the Holmesburg Prison during the summer. I didn't know them and probably I wouldn't know any other guests either. In fact, I didn't know anyone except Helen. Maybe that was the reason I went to that party.
The sky was pink when I arrived. It had been raining all day, so the night would be bleak. Despite this, Helen insisted on serving the paella in the garden. When I walked in, people were talking smoothly in the growing darkness. The light was dim, as it usually is in Philadelphia, so I could barely see the other guests. After a brief introduction to the Spanish artists, Helen pushed me toward a middle-aged housewife, who looked around shyly.
(picture by Patricia Gómez and María Jesús González)
"I am not interested in architecture or tunnels. This is a book of poems. Helen stresses the tunnels because there aren't people in the photographs. Landscapes are only seen in photographs when there are no people in them. But these images are dreams. It's not my fault if there are no people in my dreams. This book holds my winter dreams. I had terrible dreams last winter while I was visiting my sister."
Lorna was calming down, but still tense. While she spoke, she picked leaves from a bush, squishing them and staining her fingers with chlorophyll. She stared at the ground. I took a dish from the iron table and began to eat the orange rice, while Lorna continued her monologue hardly aware of my presence.
"I don't mean your dreams for the future but your daily dreams. The dream you dreamt yesterday. Try to remember a simple dream. I tried to start with a simple one: I was in my living room, having dinner. So I tried to recreate that living room: first I recorded the room and it didn't work. Then I moved the room to another room, piece by piece, but it didn't work either. Maybe it was the weight. Furniture is heavier in dreams. After moving everything, I realized that the furniture was fixed in my dream. It would be impossible to move it if I tried. It was a solid block. And I was part of the block, too. I began to realize the importance of the place in my dreams. Both inside and outside, don't you think? That was clear to me after the winter. I told you that I had terrible dreams in a village near Castilla. I went there to visit my sister and I did not expect the place to affect my dreams. But it did."
I could not help but look at this woman with open curiosity. She was hunching further down against the bush. I could stare as much as pleased because she would not look up at my face. She wouldn't let me get a word in the conversation either so I kept eating peacefully. I found garrafons among the rice -- such an exotic ingredient for a paella in this part of the world.
"The worst was the third one. It was a violent dream. I forgot several details, but I can still picture it. I was waiting in the hall of a museum in Philadelphia. It was a dark morning. I can't remember what I was doing there, the dream started a long time ago, but I was busy and surrounded by people. Suddenly some come over to me. He told me that he had been trying to find me. G. has been found dead at home. Split in two pieces. Suicide. While I wondered how a suicide could be so violent, I noticed that I had a missed call from G. I felt awful, as if I had let him down. I began to inquire about the suicide when the dream changed. This part of the dream is less clear: I saw a house similar to the one I had as a student, cold and crumbling, close to the tramlines. I could see into the house from above, like a roofless dollhouse. Like I said, I forgot most of what happened, but G. was there. He became a fat lady. Quiet, silent, serious. Two men were in her bedroom, one was holding her down while the other abused her. Both men raped her and she didn't resist. Eventually, they will kill her. The worst thing is that she knew them. The abuse seemed accepted and brutal each time. I was one of the men. When I woke up at dawn, or when the dream woke me, I was trying to cover the traces of the crime. I was working on the images of the dream. I was seated at a wooden table, working on a photo booth series of the lady. Six square portraits in landscape, three by two. She was terrible serious so I was literally making up her expression with my red x-acto knife. I was shaping her flesh, as if it was clay, drawing a smile on her face. I changed the color of the skin and the extension of the muscles. Somehow the pictures were connected to a monitor on the table. When I changed something in the picture, it modified the image on the screen. Most importantly, the dream was also rectified immediately. I mean, the part of the dream I already dreamt. It was as if the whole dream was recorded on video and I had the power to edit it. I finished one image and went to the next. After telling you the dream out loud, I don't feel the sense of urgency and promise that I felt that dawn. But I was astonished to find a system to erase brutality from dreams. I hope I didn't bother you. I told you this dream because I was surprised by the return of this old concern, the suicide. And that is important."
"I wondered at my new interest in such an old subject. I studied silent suicides some years ago. People who kill themselves over the years, quietly. First, I studied people who give up and let their bodies go by inertia, watching them from the outside. I portrayed them using plants. Then I studied people who were killed by their environment. People who were constantly subject to pressure, usually unnoticed. When violence is constant but subtle, it is difficult to define. I used plants to portray them too: bonsais, fruit growing inside a bottle. I tried to videotape this distended violence but failed. Speed was the problem. Our perception is too slow to notice a wide range of facts: the rotting of a building, the growth of a ilex. So we miss thousands of invisible crimes because they linger for years. But I abandoned that research years ago."
"Do you know the myth of Medusa? I never imagined it could be related to my former studies on suicide. I was reading some essays about this monster at the country house, and they became essential to my understanding of the violence in my dreams. I love reading old stories and comparing them to new remakes. I am not interested in the continuity of ideas or characters but in their mutations. I enjoy watching how they change in order to live in a new environment. That's what the art historian Pilar Pedraza does when studying mythological creatures. She follows them through several centuries, to show how they return in new stories. I traveled with her books and read them over and over again. I wanted to understand how she uses myths to build modern monsters. She is a master: she studies their genealogy, builds a new version, and introduces it into a daily situation to see what will happen. There is a dark humour in this because the monster usually ends up involved in antisocial or violent events. I am also fascinated by violent myths, and I create monsters myself, but not like hers. Mine are not made of meat. However, Pedraza taught me interesting things about Medusa. You probably know the basics of the myth: the severed head, Perseus' journey, the stone victims, and of course, the danger of looking straight into her eyes. Her gaze is death. It is a beautiful metaphor for blindness. But it is also a myth about places and stones. Psychoanalysts define Medusa as a castrator, who paralyzes people with fear. Pedraza writes that some monsters try to kill you from the outside of your body, as an arrow pierces flesh, but Medusa brings about a death that is already inside you. She is not physically violent. She just fosters your fears until they paralyze you. The victim is the one who falls on her knees and devours herself in front of the quiet monster. Medusa does nothing. She is a mirror for suicides. I love the stillness of Medusa. She waits in the bottom of the cave and it is the victim who must approach her. Maybe there is nothing physical in that cave at all. Medusa's monstrosity is related to a place, like a haunted house or a damned forest. Do you believe in the existence of evil places?"
"I have always hated fairy tales. They are cruel and boring. But they depict thousands of dangerous locations: haunted castles and bridges, mazes in forests, and caves full of water. Strangely, I have found these places later in life. I think that the body is shaped by geography. There are good places and bad places for shaping bodies, believe me. And Philadelphia is one of the bad ones. This is the reason I come here frequently. Last fall, I came to the city to build a monster. I began to research historical crimes and criminals, and I found that crimes were often located in the same black spots of the city. Sources of madness. I walked by those places daily. But I could not get further than this point. I could not choose a specific crime. Most crimes were irrelevant and I needed a criminal interesting enough to be a monster. I was stuck and exhausted. That was why I accepted my sister's invitation to visit her country house. I never thought my sister's place would strike me so hard. But maybe strike is not the most accurate word. The countryside was not bad. On the contrary, the nightmares I had there were from Philadelphia. It was a kind of handover. My walks through the countryside just shaped my dreams and helped me to finish my project. I wonder why it happened there. Nevertheless, the village has a strange geography. It is located on dusty hills. But these hills are, in fact, hollow and carved by groundwater. The village rests over a deep wellspring. So I was not surprised at all to find those tunnels."
"Those dreams drained me. I was too tired to read or chat, so I just walked around. I could walk for hours through the countryside. One day, when I was walking to the next village, I found a door. It was close to the village's cemetery. It was just a door in the middle of the countryside. When I asked about it, I was told that it was not a door but a tunnel. It was part of a network of tunnels which were used as an armory during the war. They were closed in the 50s after an explosion claimed several victims. The tunnels must still belong to the army, but they have been neglected for decades. I liked that door along side of the cemetery. I started finishing my daily walks there. One day I noticed another door from the other side of the cemetery. It was in the hills, so I had to climb there. Once I faced the new door, I was shocked to find mattresses, sofas, and twisted metal bars scattered everywhere around it. That door was relatively accessible from the road so the neighbors used it as an illegal dump. I was angry at such a profanation. A strange word in my vocabulary, profanation. It was a Pedraza's word. I couldn't help it but I was still thinking about my Philadelphian monster, Medusa, and the suicides. My concerns leaked into my dreams because I couldn't face them. I could only face that junk. But then, in front of that trash, the pieces began to fit together. What if the junk was waiting for me. What if someone collected it for years and arranged it that way. Inviting me in."
"I came back to that door to read the trash. I never tired of finding patterns there. One morning I searched for the other entrance of the tunnel and I found it easily, because the tunnel was short. The new door was also closed and lined with bricks. From the second door, I saw a third, and from there a fourth. I walked for more than an hour following that line. The tunnels were no long and most were sealed. Not far from the road, I found what I was looking for. The door was hidden but had an excellent view of the village and the fields, so it was perfect for an ambush. One of the walls had fallen down, so I could get it. It was perfect for Medusa."
"The seduction of the monster: my first question was how Medusa would attract her victims. Other monsters use their charms: mermaids use their voices and vampires offer sexual pleasures, but the myths don't explain what attract people to Medusa. They talk about her threats, but not about her charms. She lives in a remote place, so she must attract people to her cave somehow. Medusa should have a trap, perhaps something similar to a spider's web. Something made from material available in her cave, like the remains of her victims: trash and feathers. Because most of her victims would be small animals, probably birds."
"I went to the tunnel at first light every morning to arrange the trash. The trap shouldn't be repulsive but appealing. A warm call in a hostile place. I wanted to make a path from the exterior to the interior in two steps: an inviting mirror at the entrance and an absent monster at the end of the tunnel. But this absence was problematic. The back wall couldn't simply be left blank even if it was full of spiders. I had to stress her presence with something bigger, silent and still, but alive. Maybe a toxic plant that grows from the tunnel ground and extends her roots over the entire area. Her victims would be nothing but compost. But that wasn't my idea, it was Ruth Rendell's."
"There were lots of books in my sister's country house. Mostly bestsellers to be read in the swimming pool, books of law, and plays. Rendell's book came from the first type, the swimming pool's one. I especially liked her short story "The Vinegar Mother". It is a child's story told by two girls. They watch each other and they hate each other. And they are unable to articulate what they want to say. Perhaps, in Rendell's mind, that would be unusual at their young age. So the girls become obsessed with a vinegar pot. A friend brings it into the house. It is a gift, a natural vinegar maker. That fungus has to be placed in the dark and doused with wine, daily, so they leave it in a corner of the living room. The girls become obsessed with it. They describe it as a viscera that survives detached from a body. It hovers in a liquid as dark and sticky as blood. There is real blood in the story, and a crime with victims, but I prefer to concentrate on that vinegar pot. It is a source of evil for the girls. They don't understand that it is a simple and innocent pot. When I went back to my sister's house after the first visit to the tunnels, I began to make a portrait of the pot. I painted it slightly off center, with dozens of lianas sprouting from its mouth. I planned to hang it in Medusa's house. In her living room."
"I hung the picture on the back wall of the tunnel, but it was difficult to see. The light of the tunnel was strange. As part of the wall had fallen down, the only light came from above. The wall was backlit. In fact, you couldn't see the entire floor of the tunnel even if you looked straight at it. I mean, you could not see the details. So I decided to paint my canvas bigger, directly on the wall. The mural and the canvas would duplicate the same image, like a mirror. But it was difficult to work on the wall. It kept crumbling. It fell apart when touched, but wouldn't collapse because of the plant roots in the hillside. They both pushed the wall inward and held it together. I had to paint the wall very carefully with spray paint. I chose colors similar to those I found in the tunnel: the orange of the rusted, abandoned metal and the dark blue, almost black, of the sky. The door dissolved into the ground and I didn't want to interfere with that. I painted the mural as fast as I could because my hands were freezing. Everything around me was frozen. I enjoyed the thought of this danger. The visitors would eventually freeze if they stayed here too long. It would be a matter of time. So I just had to keep people here. I painted branches and stems surrounding the hollow center of the wall. The hole was not liquid, as the canvas was, but a blind spot. It was backlit, inviting people to approach and watch. But people would hesitate because of the black. I loved the transparent black in the mural. It warns of the painting's true nature. It is made of shadows. But where do those shadows come from? The other side of the wall? At your back? the mural is attractive and revolting at once. Despite this, I have to admit that the painting is far from perfect. This is another warning, probably the last and the most important one: I don't care about the mural. I only care about the story. Do you think that tunnel is a dangerous place? I would say that what is dangerous is the story that surrounds it. Maybe that's how Medusa keeps her victims, by telling stories."
For the first time since the story began, Lorna raised her black eyes to mine. I cannot describe the metallic nature of her gaze. My stomach seared with pain. In that moment, we bowed toward each other. I bent forward because of the sting; she bent forward to offer me a small orange painting with a smile. If people had seen us at then, they would think we were bowing goodbye. I took the painting and fled the house, as decently as I could. I vomited paella all night. And I did not hang it in the living room, but in the corridor.