Ghosts

Héctor Abad's Oblivion: A Memoir is published by Old Street Publishing in October.

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Fifteen rosaries, two eyes out

When my father went away for months and months, I succumbed defencelessly to the dark Catholicism of my mother's family. Several nights a week I had to go to Grandma Victoria's house. She had come into the world after a string of six brothers, in Bucaramanga, and when the seventh and last child was finally a girl, my great-grandfather, José Joaquín, had shouted: "Victory at last!" and so she was named Victoria. My grandmother was surrounded by devout men, and ended up being the sister of Archbishop Joaquín and Monsignor Luis García, and of Alberto, Colombian consul in Havana (a little livelier than his brothers, perhaps the least bible-bashing of the family), and the aunt of Joaquín García Ordóñez, bishop of Santa Rosa de Osos, and also the aunt of two rebel priests.

Besides this devout and masculine clan, to complete the picture of the Catholic-to-the-marrow milieu, her confessors and close friends included Monsignor Uribe, who would become bishop of Rionegro and the most famous exorcist in Colombia, Father Lisandeo Franky, parish priest in Aracataca, and Father Tisnés, historian of the Academy. Thanks to all these Levitical links she also hosted the Apostolic Sewing Circle, a group of women who met every Wednesday afternoon, from two till six, and tirelessly sewed the vestments of the city's priests, free for the poor ones and expensive for the rich. They sewed, knitted and embroidered albs, cinctures, stoles, chasubles, amices for covering the back, purifiers for the altar, cloths to polish the ciborium, and surplices for the seminarians and altar boys.

My grandmother's house, on Carrera Villa and Calle Bomboná, smelled of incense like a cathedral, and was full of statues and images of saints, like a pagan temple of several religions and specialities (the Sacred Heart of Jesus, his entrails showing, Saint Anne teaching the Holy Virgin to read, Saint Anthony of Padua preaching to the birds with his incorrupt tongue, Saint Martin of Porres protecting the black people of Peru, the Curé d'Ars Saint John Vianney on his deathbed), as well as a series of immense photos of the late archbishop, with his blind man's dark glasses hiding his eyes, hanging on the dining room walls and in the long, dark corridors. There was also a chapel and an oratory, where Uncle Luis was authorized to say Mass, and several letters in gold-leaf frames because they bore Cardinal Pacelli's signature, and then that of His Holiness Pius XII, the name assumed by the Cardinal, a friend of Uncle Joaquín's, when the Holy Spirit named him Pope shortly before the Second World War, to the misfortune of the Jews and the shame of Christianity, and as well as all these sacred objects and devotions and images the house was filled with the permanent scent of the sacristy, of burning candles, fear of sin and convent gossip.

As evening fell, my sisters and I all sat around Grandma in the oratory, and women began to emerge from every corner of the house, women relatives and women servants and women neighbours, women always dressed in black or dark brown, like cockroaches, mantillas on their heads and rosary beads in hand. The rosary ceremony was presided over by Uncle Luis in his glossy old cassock, stained with ash and worn out with ironing, with his raw leper's hands, his tonsure on the white crown of his head, and his appearance of a giant, smiling and furious at the same time, scandalized and despairing at the routine sins and incorrigible sinners he had to absolve every evening in the confessional of his apartment. He waited patiently, smoking one cigarette after another and singeing his fingers, repeating over and over his old despairing chant ("Oh, when, when will we get to Heaven!"), as the last few women arrived from indoors and out.

There was Marta Castro, who'd been consumptive and had been left with a dry, muted, permanent cough and fast, anxious breathing and who also had one cloudy, bluish-grey eye, because once when she was embroidering a chasuble she had pricked her retina with a needle and lost the sight in that eye, and all for doing charitable work for the poor priests, that's how God had repaid her. Just as He had repaid Uncle Luis, who had gone to be a chaplain in Agua de Dios, Colombia's leper colony, a village in Cundinamarca, and contracted the disease that would kill him, his back peeling away bit by bit, his fingers coming off in pieces. Once, near the end of his days, my grandmother was making his bed and suddenly, on the sheet, all by itself, she saw his big toe, and ran to call the doctor, but it was already too late, because as well as Hansen's disease he had developed diabetes and they had to amputate his legs, first one then the other.

And there was Tatá too, first Grandma's nanny and then my mother's, who lived for six months in our house and six in Grandma's house, who was completely deaf and said the rosary to her own rhythm. Something awful happened to Tatá too, later on, when the best surgeon in Medellín, Dr Alberto Llano, operated on her cataracts and my mother was looking after her. She couldn't get out of bed or lift her head up, my mother washed her with a flannel so she didn't have to move, two months of total stillness, because back then the operation was done with a scalpel and not a laser and the wound was a large one. But one morning my mother was helping to change her pyjamas, and Tatá raised her head and as she did so my mother saw that her eye was emptying itself out, a gelatinous substance like raw egg white began to drip from the socket, and my mother was left with Tatá's eye in her hand, a putrid-smelling jelly, and Tatá went blind forever in that eye, and with the other she could see only light and shadows. But she didn't dare have another operation for the cataracts of the second eye, and to communicate with her my mother bought a blackboard like the ones in schools, and chalk, and to say something to her you had to write it on the board in immense letters, because she could only see big shapes like houses, and she prayed and prayed constantly, because these were things sent by God to test us or to make us suffer here on earth, in advance, some of the torments of Purgatory, so very necessary for cleansing the soul before we could become worthy of Heaven.

Continues in the print edition. Order now.

Translated by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean.

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