The City of White Stones

Every time I returned to the cemetery of my town I tried, in vain, to guide myself in the labyrinth and find the tombstone of my ancestors. (Facebook)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 12 February 2022 — Somewhere in the town where we were born, turning down a certain aisle and advancing to the third or fourth corridor of the cemetery, the family vault is located. The word pantheon, in most cases, is excessive. It is more like a rectangle of two meters by one, which overlooks a kind of endless beehive. There, in small aluminum boxes or in heavy coffins, our dead rest.

No one suspects how horrifying the sight of an open tomb can be for a child. I, who accompanied the funeral march of my grandparents, cannot get out of my head – not as a trauma, but rather as vertigo of memory – the act of uncovering the vertical passageway, its niches numbered, where the gravediggers dropped the sarcophagi with the help of ropes and pulleys.

It didn’t impress me so much to learn that my grandparents would no longer belong to the world of the living, they would no longer come to lunch, they would not smoke compulsively, they would not take me to a municipal band room or sit me in the barbershop chair, to cut my hair against my will, as did the fact of seeing them hidden, covered and under stone. Of the old, I thought then, only the name, the dates and a mortuary address remain, which I refused to learn and, for this reason, today I would not know how to recognize my family vault.

I suppose that, more than one tomb, I get two or four or sixteen, due to the multiplication of relatives. I don’t know if my brother or my parents know that information, which comes with adulthood, like the keys to the house and the bank account number. My resistance to memorizing these types of figures comes, perhaps, from having forgotten where my ancestors were after they died. In fact, I never even went back to my maternal grandfather’s or great-grandfather’s house. When one leaves his country, the last thing he thinks about is the deceased.

As a child, my father took me to place flowers for his grandmother. I only remember that the tomb was in the northern sector of the cemetery and that to get there, an unpleasant thing, you had to step on several sepulchers. There he showed me a rectangle covered not by a stone but by earth, whose tombstone he had made himself, as a young man. On a molten cement plate and with the help of a stiletto that served as a chisel, he carved the names of the deceased he knew. I don’t remember if there was any Carbonell or Echevarría, but there were the Beltráns and the Seijos, a strange Galician surname.

Before we left, he offered me some clues — a sepulcher that was a miniature chalet, a mutilated angel, a flag — to locate the grave in the future. Every time I returned to the cemetery of my town I tried, in vain, to guide myself in the labyrinth and find the tombstone of my ancestors. I have chosen to think that it never existed and that my memory is invented, another fiction, material for a novel.

A few weeks ago I leafed through a Cuban newspaper that talked about grave robbers in Matanzas. I thought for a moment of Howard Carter, the Valley of the Kings and the pharaohs, but the photos in the report grounded me. The bandits destroyed the coffins with a very peculiar viciousness, scattered the bones on the ground – like Kubrick’s monkeys – and evicted the works of art and any bronze rings from the pantheon.

The cemetery I went to as a child did not have the value or the history of San Carlos Borromeo, it mattered much less than that of Colón and Santa Ifigenia. But on the gate was a phrase by Tito Livio that my friends and I repeated without understanding, and that reminded whoever passed by that every death was, at the same time, liberation and compensation for wrongs. Or, to correctly translate the word, revenge.

Other cemeteries that were familiar to me had more serene inscriptions – I am the door of peace – or more resigned ones – death is the last reason – but always in the Latin language, perhaps because it is a reassuring and remote language, like death itself. Behind the gate the avenues, chapels and white stones appeared, figures always broken, sculptures of dogs and cats, a miniature ship, busts polished by the rain. Or, in the Hebrew cemeteries – my town had one – pure and incomprehensible text, characters arranged from right to left, the same with the dates.

No sane person is concerned with death or immortality. Any preparation is useless and nothingness must be as thick as in the dream, similar to medical sedation, and hopefully just as painless.

My grandparents. My parents. My favorite writers. The guy who composed the piece we hummed insistently. The desecrators of San Carlos Borromeo. The cats I raised and the ones that ran away. The objects, even. The meditators and the carefree, the loud and the silent, the dictators and the exiles, the bad and the noble. The undertaker. Who reads this text. I. What will we think with the last bar?


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