Marsh Monsters & Werewolves

eat: Cañaillas from the Ebro River at Zortziko


I’ve been busy working– rather furtively, as I’m new to the fiction game– on a novel. It’s about under-water dwellers and yes, it’s as nerdy as it sounds. I’ve been relishing in the random research the project requires since I moved to Spain and have actually had the time to do so. So you can imagine how stoked I was to learn about these guys:


Cañaillas are a “species of medium-sized predatory sea snails.” They are popular in Andalucía, but they can also be found at the mouth of the Rio Ebro– the Estuary of Bilbao.

These sea (/estuary) snails are apparently cannibalistic, and I can understand why: They’re delicious. I’d eat my neighbor, too, if I were one of them. They’re similar in taste to the percebes I wrote about in Madrid, though a little less briny and definitely easier to get at. Our server at Zortziko told us that the shell was on our plate for decoration and that we should “not to eat the tiny house.”

Photo from, credit Wikipedia Commons

The shell-dwellers had been prepared in a seaweed risotto, which was even more delicious than it sounds: Just the right amount salty, each savory slurp complementing the snails themselves. The texture of the critters I found to be pleasant; they were slightly chewy but not tough. Fun to eat. Less sweet than crab, less buttery than scallops.

Unlike land-snails, their flavor is delicate enough that it’s not necessary to soak them in butter and garlic before finding them appealing.

Zortziko was an experience: the dining room was beautiful and the service was comprehensive without being too stuffy or intimidating. It was a splurge, but a wonderful treat after touring the Guggenheim and the city.

You’re welcome.

read: Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones

Bilbao is a beautiful city. It’s also pretty metal. Stephen Graham Jones is pretty metal, too.I mean, you can find him online at Monsters, metal, and…here ends the fairly tenuous connection I’m working with between Mongrels and the capital of Basque Country, Spain.

My metalhead husband in front of a metal station in Bilbao.

Mongrels is a really good read, though, and I kept it with me as we wove the port-city’s streets. “City people,” Graham Jones’ protagonist might have said while eying me with suspicion. I picture a young, disheveled, perhaps-soon-to-be-werewolf witnessing me on a Bilbao bench with his book and rolling his eyes. Oh, look at this goofy chick traipsing through Europe with my memoirs. Hilarious. 

I did start to feel close to the protagonist, despite the fact we never learn his name and I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t want to be my friend. That’s because Mongrels is the narrator’s own account of his journey into adulthood, something he’d risk braving a fire to save. What I admire most about  Jones’ prose is that the writing sounds like an actual teenager’s. It’s an account by someone who’d avoid repeating his name at all cost in his own diary as it’d just be awkward.

He does sometimes refer to himself in the third person, but it’s only to try on more fully the different identities he’s imagined for himself at different stages in his life. By doing this, he is able to speak of the most traumatic episodes at a”safer” distance.  He was born into a family of  werewolves who must fight to find space and safety and, well, the wherewithal they need to survive. Our narrator, for instance, learns he is actually physically responsible for his own mother’s death, and may eventually become a werewolf himself (a probability that causes much excitement and consternation). In the mean time, he’s trying to learn how to just be. He has the help of his make-shift nuclear family: grandfather, aunt, and uncle– werewolves all.

His flash-backs are engaging because they make it clear how hard he’s been trying to understand where he belongs in a world that doesn’t understand and even shuns his people. For instance: our younger narrator likes comics and finds a silly appeal in vampires. This is perfect, actually, as it helps establish that in the world of Mongrels, werewolves don’t belong to the same realm of fancy. Recalling a particularly shitty Halloween– he and his family end up on the run again– the boy doesn’t remember dressing up as a vampire. Instead he refers to himself as The Vampire as he proceeds to finish the distressing story. Later, he isn’t a boy growing up without his father who acts up in class, he is “The Criminal.” In each flash-back, he keeps the stretched skin of The Identity on the whole time.

These costumes of voice show his constant grappling with how he sees himself, how he imagines others will see him. At first he tries on story-book names (The Vampire, The Criminal); eventually he plays with occupational hats: The Biologist. The Reporter. You can almost see how he looks back to the times his aunt and uncle have suffered the most trying to help him and he cringes, looks away. Applies a distinct name. Eventually, as he grows older– looking with ever more anxiety  for signs he may indeed turn into a werewolf like his family– he begins to use these labels as a way to admit the deep divide between them and everyone else in each sleepy southern town they move to. We get stories from The Hitchhiker, from the antithesis of Werewolf: The Villager.

Shunned by such “town folk,” the family does things one might consider morally incomprehensible. Like what? I won’t spoil the book for you, but there is an instance of gleeful bunny-devouring. Then again, the week before our trip to Bilbao, when my ESL students were discussing their pets in their un-oiled English, a few vicious-eyed children yelled “Delicious!” when we got to bunnies. I’m sure many of you would agree. Poor bunnies.

“Everything’s a trade-off when you’re a werewolf.
It’s like the world wants us to be monsters. Like it won’t let us live the way normal citizens do.”

In the best monster stories, the monsters ride a blurry line between being disgusting and understandable. Surprisingly tender. That’s the power of Jones’ metaphor: Reading the narrator’s struggles, it quickly becomes clear that the identity of werewolf is closely connected to the identity of someone who must live on the fringe. Our protagonist is figuring out for himself whether he can/should/must support the actions of his family members, who are usually doing the best the can to help him survive amidst the trials and tribulations being a werewolf demands of them.

I remember having an aha moment in college, a time in my life when I was trying to figure out who I was (what a luxury to get to dawdle in that decision-making process). I proudly enrolled in a course called Environmental History, preparing as I was to be A Serious Environmentalist. Let’s say you’re born into a family of loggers, my professor said one day, playing devil’s advocate. The only thing you know to do is log, and from the logging you get food. Your kid eats and stays warm. Do you still fight to protect the forest?

Don’t make a meme of it, please. The lesson wasn’t that if we are sympathetic to the human plight we should ignore the crisis of deforestation. The lesson was that everywhere– in the world at large, in our own communities– there are people suffering in ways you can’t imagine, and that you should calm the fuck down with your holier-than-thou attitude.

I felt a similar pull at my throat while reading this book. If a dog must be killed, do I feel bad for the dog? Absolutely. Do I hate the characters whose lives are unfolding before me, who have to do the killing? Not exactly. I feel sick to my stomach and upset and confused, because Jones leads me away from simple conclusions. He makes me look at a kind suffering I can’t know and he asks me to look long.

For further reading & eating, see:

  • Nerea and I, by Lauta Mentegi and translated by Linda White. I read this Basque novel in English a good while ago now, and I’ve since returned it to ASU’s Inter Library Loan (ah, what a magical thing, ILL). It’s written in the POV of a Basque university professor who, by happenstance, teaches a long-distance prison course to an ETA prisoner being held in France. The story isn’t about terrorism or the prisoner herself, but rather about the narrator and how the communication shook the metaphorical ground her life was built on. A really interesting read.
  • Coppola Bilbao. Definitely eat pintxos in Bilbao. But when you want something heartier, come here and get the delicious pizza they serve here. The service is awesome and very friendly.
  • Bilboat: take the tourist’s tour because it’s awesome, and you can enjoy the really affordable glasses of Txakoli along the way.

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