Karen Russell: “Vampires in the Lemon Grove”

Vampires-in-the-Lemon-Grove“Vampires in the Lemon Grove” is the first story in Karen Russell’s second short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. For an overview with links to review of the others stories in this collection, please click here.

I approached this story warily. As much as I loved Russell’s strange first collection of short stories (which I must revisit), I was frightened that I had just gone in a different direction, not being that big of a fan of her novel Swamplandia!. Perhaps I’d feel she was just too self-consciously bizarre these days, that the cleverness pushed out the subtlety I admired (as I feel with George Saunders). I was heartened, then, when I found Russell’s meditative prose introducing me to the life of a married but lonely vampire in a lemon grove in Italy. Here’s how she introduces the setting, the vampire, and the lonely passage of time:

In October, the men and women of Sorrento harvest the primofiore, or “first flowering fruit,” the most succulent lemons; in March, the yellow bianchetti ripen, followed in June by the green verdelli. In every season you can find me sitting at my bench, watching them fall. Only one or two lemons tumble from the branches each hour, but I’ve been here so long their falls seem contiguous, close as raindrops.

It would be easy to summarize this story in such a way that it sounds hokey: Clyde, a vampire, and his vampire wife, Magreb, live in a Lemon Grove, lemons being the only thing that gives some relief to their bloodlust. But lately the period of relief is getting shorter and shorter . . .

That’s all true, but there is a lot more to this story, not the least of which is the touching and tragic relationship between Clyde and Magreb, who have the potential to live together forever but, at this point, for what?

As a young vampire, Clyde believed all of the stories he heard about vampires. Awkward and alone, he slept in a coffin and developed a deep fear of the sun. He stalked victims and sucked their blood, feeling noble because he didn’t kill small children as he’d heard other vampires did. Magreb is the first other vampire he meets. She works hard to disabuse him of the myths he’s subjected himself to. The most shocking is that blood does nothing for them. Yes, they lust after it, but the lust doesn’t go away. Over the course of a 130-year marriage, they’ve searched for something else to appease them:

Over the years, Magreb and I have tried everything — fangs in apples, fangs in rubber balls. We have lived everywhere: Tunis, Laos, Cincinnati, Salamanca. We spent our honeymoon hopping continents, hunting liquid chimeras: mint tea in Fez, coconut slurries in Oahu, jet-black coffee in Bogotá, jackal’s milk in Dakar, Cherry Coke floats in rural Alabama, a thousand beverages purported to have magical quenching properties. We went thirsty in every region of the globe before finding our oasis here, in the blue boot of Italy, at this dead nun’s lemonade stand. It’s only these lemons that give us any relief.

But the lemons aren’t doing their job like they used to, so change is imminent. Clyde is getting tired of it all. Magreb believes they can still find just what they’re looking for (in fact, she chose her name in aspiration of finding “the setting place,” or, as she calls it, the “final answer”; Clyde, incidentally, chose his name during the California Gold Rush and wants to find another one that is more suitable to Italy).

This relationship, brought to us in pensive, tired yet still yearning prose, is the heart of this story. How long can they hold out in eternity?

Often I wonder to what extent a mortal’s love grows from the bedrock of his or her foreknowledge of death, love coiling like a green stem out of that blankness in a way I’ll never quite understand. And lately I’ve been having a terrible thought: Our love affair will end before the world does.

It’s actually touching. Clyde loves his wife but recognizes the futility of their quest. He sees them as staying together merely to thirst together. She, of course, still hopes for some “final setting,” but what is good about that? They’ve been everywhere together. It seems the best change to hope for is the one they cannot effect: death.

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