Between two worlds

The statue of Chronos lies in perpetual vigil, overlooking the gate dividing two worlds: mine and that of those who rest in the afterlife. With eager curiosity, when faced with so many people, I ask my mother if someone famous has recently departed. She tells me that today is Monday, a day of praying for the souls. She explains that many people come to the Central Cemetery to ask them for favours, especially to those who dwell in purgatory. I then remember a print of a woman at my grandmother’s house that terrified me when I was a little girl; it was titled El Ánima Sola. Years later, I read that the unsettling print was created in Cali in the mid-twentieth century, in a lithography press owned by a Spaniard named Molinari. His popular print, the number 75, featured a woman whose suffering was reflected in her begging eyes while she lifted her chained arms amidst an ocean of fire.

The print became so famous that there was no homely altar lacking it, constantly lit by a candle wrapped in bright red cellophane paper. She represented one of the poor souls from purgatory. Surely Mr Molinari did not intend to terrify the children of Colombia in the middle of the last century, or those from my generation, but the sanctimony of those times, combined with the scary stories that our grandparents used to tell us, and the horrifying painting of the perennial wretched soul stopped more than one person from committing deviltries by knowing where the sinners of the world would end up. How grave does a fault need to be to make someone spend an eternity floating amidst the flames? ‘Very bad’, I thought, while my mother drives me through the laneways of the cemetery, plagued with sad quartets singing posthumous serenades paid by those alive for the delight of the deceased.

People meander across the necropolis, around the tombs of the founding fathers of our nation and a handful of public figures, lighting candles and whispering the novena for the poor souls. I know this because they leave behind holy cards of the supplicant dame. Every now and then, they stop in front of a line of tombs in the various paths that make up the graveyard’s circular labyrinth, while they pray and sanctify themselves as a sign of respect. My grandparents’ remains are here, and my mother comes every month to put flowers in the minute copper vases encrusted in the tombstone. Below the small double ossuary containing what’s left of them, there is one that is almost empty. From where I stand waiting, I can see various objects that I cannot distinguish and a flickering candle at the end. My mother takes me aside, as if she knew my intention to put my hand inside, and at the same time asks me not to touch anything. She makes the sign of the Holy Cross and puts away her silver rosary, only to later kiss the palm of her hand and caress the cold marble tombstone of the Santana family. She later rests her arm over my shoulders and guides me through the nooks forming the recessed graves on the walls. I am curious to know which is the oldest and the most recent denizen in the cemetery. Shortly after, I look at the photo of a boy my age, no older than 16. The only thing written in his epitaph is: ‘With all the love from your parents’. I feel a chill down my spine. Until then I had never thought that someone as young as me could cease to exist.

It’s getting dark and it’s better not to know what it can be found around these solitary corridors. We finally get out of the narrow cubicle of minuscule forgotten tombs. The mosquitoes, and especially the smell of rotting carnations, make my stomach churn to the point of feeling sick. The sun is setting and I can feel my skin crawling, while I try to bow down to avoid the inert gaze of the greyish marble angels from the mausoleum of some family from the capital oligarchy. The Michelsen surname binds itself to the iron forge protecting the entrance to their last resting place. On the way to the exit, I see from afar the Army graveyard. One of my cousins also rests there. Two stone soldiers silently guard the crystal door. My mother says goodbye with a loud voice and says that next time we come, we will leave him some flowers. My cousin was a lieutenant and the war against violence of the 1990s took him too soon.

The walk towards the exit makes my heart beat to the same rhythm of my mother’s high heels. The noise rumbles, echoing in the half-open crypts dating back to the Bogota of yesteryear. The musty air and the shadows that appear with the arrival of the sunset start to put a veil over everything. A funeral hearse makes its way through the last mourners of the day, resembling a black beetle carrying its heavy shell on its back and slowly crawling for safety before nightfall.

Several women, all dressed in black and wearing veils covering their faces, appear to ignore the clock and the imminent darkness. They walk in procession, lighting candles in front of the nameless tombs. They perceive our presence from the rushed sound of my mother’s footsteps and lift their heads, watching us pass by with indifference, like the faces on yellowish photographs hanging from behind the glass doors of the niches in front of them. The photos belong to the people lying in coffins, behind the small wall. My body shivers at the thought that the inert remains of these people are here, resting while being consumed by maggots. Only a few bricks and several layers of cement separate us.

Suddenly, a voice can be heard over a speaker, announcing the closing time. I dare to ask my mother what would happen if we were left there, locked up. While she takes me by the hand, she looks at me and says that we would have to pray to the souls all night, while waiting for the sun to rise. I’m sure that she would not allow this to happen because she is even more nervous than me. Her hand is sweaty and as cold as my grandparents’ marbled tombstone.

At the end of the street, I can see the exit. The gates are half-closed and several people are queuing to exit, with their heads bowed down, as if meditating about their visit and the future experience that awaits us all. On the other side of the fence I see Avenida 26, which branches out into three directions: north, south and downtown, with the western mountain range in the backdrop. The first white lights of Montserrate Church resemble a ghost on the cusp of the mountain, with its intense whiteness in the middle of the fog that has started to hide it.

Crossing the gate, I feel a profound relief. I see that my mother is trying to find a way to cross the avenue through the heavy traffic because the bus that takes us back home departs from the opposite side. It’s rush hour, the city is adorned by the lights from its windows, and everything starts beaming the colours of the night. Once more, I stand up in front of the cemetery custodian. Chronos shows himself expectantly, with a sickle in his left hand and his right hand resting on a sand clock which marks the time for those who must come to him. The phrase on his feet, Exspectamvs.Resvrrectionem.Mortvorvm, ‘We expect the resurrection of the dead,’ prompts me to lend him one last prying glance, before we search for the transport that will take us back to the world of the living. I respectfully bow and wonder, ‘What will we have for dinner tonight?’

Lina Andrea Preciado Cano has been living in Australia for seven years. She is a Colombo-Australian translator and proofreader who works remotely for an NGO based in The Netherlands. She has a Bachelor Degree in the Arts of Teaching Languages and a Masters Degree in Translation. Her passion for reading and the big decision of moving to Sydney have been great sources of inspiration. Some of her stories have been published in academic and literary magazines in Spain and Mexico.

Andrea Ballesteros is a Mexican translator and historian based in Brisbane. She completed her PhD at the ANU in 2020—her research focused on the theories about pre-Columbian trans-Pacific contact between Oceania and the Americas. She’s an avid reader and researcher.

By Lina Andrea Preciado Cano

Issue 1 | Autumn 2022

Entre dos mundos | Lina Andrea Preciado Cano

Venado azul | Silvia Rojas