When she woke, perhaps after thirty years, ten thousand nights, or only a few minutes (because in eternity minutes get confused with years and many years are only one night), her eyes did not know where her body lay—and yet, perhaps her eyes had no need to find her body because her face was certainly there: her face, illuminated by altar candles of pink and sky-blue; her face, revered by drizzle and death; her face, repeated on thousands of stamps, miraculous pendants, and blessed scapulars, which the devoted piously acquired and then, making the sign of the cross, wore below their clothes, hung around their necks, slipped out of sight into their prayer books or hid in merciful wallets, all while the fragrance of incense and aromatic floral waters proclaimed, in the cemetery of Callao, the resurrection of the flesh, life everlasting, and the return of the saints.
Blessed are those who return to the light of this world and walk without being noticed in the midst of a throng of prayers and holy candles and also amongst the drowsy devotees who took the first microbus of the morning to be the first to arrive at this chapel of the Callao cemetery where homage is paid to a young woman, deceased in 1940, about whose life no one knows very much. No, not even she would be able to remember with much accuracy whether it is true that she awoke at this particular moment…
When she woke, the first thing that really astonished her was the survival of a certain timid portrait taken by a street photographer with dark cloth, tripod and box camera one lazy Saturday afternoon in the plaza of San Martín. She could not remember having given it to anyone, nor could she find a reason why anyone would have decided to preserve it. Perhaps it was foreknown that she would be the protagonist of an inflexible prophecy, according to which the last return in order to be the first. It is true that prophecies do get fulfilled and they are always remarkable, but the truly remarkable thing is that I should be the one to return, she perhaps said to herself, and perhaps she was about to ask the devotees to allow her to return to death since she was nobody to deserve such worship, but, if she did try to do so, she found herself unable because she could not speak with the living: it is these latter, the living, who always go to such lengths to try to converse with those on the other side.
When she woke, she could hear perfectly the recounting of her most recent miracles and the testimony of her merciful steps on earth; or rather, she could have heard these had she not preferred to let her eyes pass slowly over and above the group of disciples and then, rising above the necropolis, she returned briefly to the clouds, from which she could make out the outline of Callao, the graceful fortress of Royal Felipe, and the threads of asphalt that connect the port with the capital of Peru. She wanted to know, then, if the prophecy of Santa Rosa had been fulfilled, according to which the ships would one day drop their anchors on the submerged Plaza de Armas of Lima. But not enough time had yet elapsed, nor had the world changed very much: all she could note was that the sky was a little darker and that the flock of turkey buzzards had multiplied into a sea of black beaks, impatient to devour once and for all what had once been the resplendent capital of the viceroys.
She had heard of Santa Rosa and the viceroys in the night school she attended after cooking and scrubbing pots in the house of her Italian employer. She had learned, also, the story of the black saint—cook and porter of a convent—who washed brown sugar until it turned white; who could make the dogs, mice, and cats dine together; and who was, at last, banned from carrying out miracles, but who, on one occasion, upon seeing that a painter was falling from a high stepladder, declared, “Stay in the air a while, brother, while I go to seek permission to carry out a miracle,”—this is how Sarita felt, suspended between earth and sky, weightless, floating because of a miracle that was, perchance, being enacted by those gathered in the cemetery; praying and despairing, they had brought her back—they, the artisans, labourers, vendors of trinkets and of raffle tickets, car washers, microbus-fillers, domestic servants, secretarial students and hairdressing students and students of dressmaking, nocturnal butterflies, men, women, and even children, the unemployed, the imprisoned, the sick, suspicious, offended, violent, ashamed, the almost invisible men, the negligible men, the nothing men, the unhappy ones for whom even the heavens seemed to have prohibited miracles.
It was for this reason, certainly, that the eyes of Sarita stopped soaring and crossed once more the realm of clouds and turkey buzzards to return to the earth and enter the world of her devotees, with whom she would no longer be able to plead to return her from whence she came, because the poor are able only to call upon the saints and draw them, but it is not within their power to return them to the heavens. It was for them that Sarita was waking and, perhaps, when she woke completely, she yearned, like everybody does, to hear her own story, narrated and sung in the voice of those who pray, hope and sing, a story that could not be a novel but rather a song—a song of many voices but sung in one unified silence, the way songs are sometimes sung, voicelessly and dispassionately, to love and to life.
“Very miraculous is Sarita. Once I was in love with this girl and I prayed to Sarita and I told her: Sarita, you are the only one that knows of this thing, so I am going to pray that you help me, and because of this, within the week, the girl approached me and we went to the movies, and we have been dating six months, but now… now I want nothing to do with her because the life of a married man does not appeal to me, and so I left.”
“Very miraculous is Sarita. Yes, even Cachito Ramírez took her to Argentina for the qualifying heats of ‘69, and we qualified. What do you say? How did he take her? He just took her!”
“And for that, the players have gifted her a bridal gown, that one that you see on her statue, and I dream of one day taking her to Panama so that the people there can know of her, so they can know how miraculous she is, because she performs miracles for anyone, any little person whatever, and that’s why I say that she does miracles on the spot, and that is why I’m now afraid to ask her for a miracle.”
When she woke, she was amazed to see how the sequins sparkled on the bridal gown that they had placed over her tomb and perhaps she was surprised to realise that she had never considered—not even dreamed—of wearing a dress like that, not even when the street photographer in the plaza of San Martín, one Victor Phumpiú, asked her to neither move nor breathe. Perhaps in that moment she thought that she was dreaming and she wished to return to sleep, but she was no longer able to, because she was miraculously awake.
SARITA MUST HAVE LEARNED TO PERFORM MIRACLES IN THE SEVENTIES
Testimony of Saúl Grados, driver, born in Huacho, 38 years old
This going around inquiring about people’s lives and miracles doesn’t seem very right to me. In any case, since you ask, sir, see for yourself what I have to tell you about this one case: it turns out that there was this woman named doña Candelaria who would go every week to visit the souls in the cemetery to pray to them, to converse with them and to leave flowers over the communal graves. So, one day she noticed a tomb that she had never seen before: on the tomb it said, Sarita Colonia, deceased on such and such a day in 1940 and, well, it occurred to her to show the tomb a little attention, to go and lay some flowers there. Without knowing Sarita? Of course, without knowing her. But what I was getting at was the miracle and it went like this: of this woman, a young man had asked to borrow five hundred soles and he had left her a sewing machine as a guarantee. Others say it was a revolver. Well, it could be, but I heard that it was a sewing machine. Stolen? Purchased? Don’t ask me these things! You want to hear the story? I don’t know anything about that… But it turns out that this guy had disappeared because the police were bothering him and bothering him, and he was lost for like a year. So the woman did not know where he was or why he had disappeared and, one good day, doña Candelaria, talking with Sarita, right over there, at the door of her tomb, decided to ask her: Sarita Colonia, I would like you to do me the miracle of asking this young man to pay me because he owes me five hundred soles and it is now already a year that he doesn’t show. And, you see, a few days later there was a knock at her door, and the woman opened it, and she had the surprise of the young man, come to bring her the five hundred soles, and then the woman, astonished, asked him: but, how can this be, young man, since it has been such a long time since I last saw you? No, madam, he replied, and right there he told her that he had gone to Brazil and that he had been working there and it had gone well for him and that now he was back, and he was calling for his machine and that he even wanted to pay her interest. So the woman, happy as can be, went to the cemetery to thank Sarita with some special prayers that are said over seven days and which, for souls in purgatory are like manna from heaven. From then on, doña Candelaria began to proclaim the miracle that Sarita had done for her and, right away, within five months, the tomb began to get surrounded by people, because Sarita had now learned how to perform little miracles, one after the other, and she did them well.
What year did this happen? This happened in ’71 or ’72, that’s what my mother tells me. So, it was by chance that it was Sarita for whom doña Candelaria left the flowers? See, she recited prayers to absolutely all of the communal graves and abandoned tombs, and no other soul was able to perform a miracle for her like Sarita did. What’s more, the souls wouldn’t let me lie, would they? Was Sarita in the communal grave? No, she was in the wall, at the foot of the communal grave, that’s where she was entombed, certainly, and that’s why doña Candelaria went to pray there every Monday.
DYING TO DIE
Monday is the day of the moon and also of the dead. And that is why, on this day of pilgrimage, a small altar is erected inside the cemetery where Sarita is venerated. Every Monday, hundreds of devotees, bearing flowers, form an endless queue: if someone arrives at eight in the morning he might approach the altar at around midday. He will have time to present precisely one wish—just one, not several—because the time to quench all wishes is not this time, not this day. He will have time to deposit at the feet of the small funerary monument the flowers that he has brought. And the disciples of Sarita, administrators of the cult, will have time to arrange the floral offerings across large trays full of water where, after some days have passed, the plants will deposit their essences and combine their scents into one sole potent liquid, product of faith and of putrefaction, corrupted, yellowing, but full of holiness and miracle, which in turn the devotees will take to their houses in flasks and bottles because its ingestion is good to cure stomach pains, to remedy jinxes, to clean bad luck and hidden shames, to alleviate the problems of unrequited love or, perhaps, to gulp down the pain in just one mouthful.
As well as being the day of the moon, Monday was also, for me, the day of my decision. I had been wishing to write a book about Sarita Colonia, and I did not know when or how to start. One Monday, early and under the Limenian drizzle, I found myself crossing the interminable barracks of the cemetery of Callao. A florist had sold me a bunch of white Madonna lilies, which are the preferred flowers of the saintess, and I could not decide how to carry them: at first, I grasped the bunch with my left hand, the stems facing upwards, then, uncomfortable with this semblance, I added to the flowers one of the daily newspapers. I did not want to be interrogated over the motives that brought me to this necropolis. Many times, on the journey, it occurred to me that maybe it was enough just to take the lilies: their penetrating aroma and their brilliant whiteness would certainly attract the saintess. Perhaps, without my having to ask many questions, the responses would come surging night after night, and I would not even know the identity of the voice dictating them to me from the sky.
“I would like to see the notebook of miracles,” I heard myself say to a woman who gave the impression of being the guardian of the cult.
“The notebook of what? Oh, yes, of course. Would you like to give a testimony?”
Again, I heard myself rehearsing a series of explanations whose only effect was to convince me that it was I who was speaking. I don’t know if the woman even heard me.
“You will have to come another day. We have sent the notebook for binding. But by all means, pray to Sarita, now that you have the opportunity to do so, and, if you wish, speak with the devotees. There are some who know the story.”
That day, someone gave me the telephone number of Hipólito, Sarita’s younger brother, now, a retired professor. Others spoke to me of Juan Burro and the Ambassador of Quiquijana, two folkloric artists, dedicated to telling and singing of the saintess’ life. Also in the cemetery that Monday was a surly man known as the man of the powerful hand. I don’t know why they dubbed him this. Perhaps because, once, he had spilled blood or because he seemed to find himself somewhat distanced from his right hand; at every moment he shook it and grasped at it as if he wanted to abandon it once and for all.
Surely Sarita, suspended in air and time, was able to see how her followers would leave the altar happy and how they did not know where to go next, preferring to pause on their path as if a holy light had suddenly reached out to them. Some lifted up their bottles of holy water, trying to see life therein and, in its shifting, greenish yellow colours, they intuited the flowers that had rested upon that water: the flowers of the inconsolable, of the failures, of the survivors, of the curious, the restless, the abandoned, the impassioned, the hurt: fervent flowers, anxious, blinded, brilliant and dreamt of—flowers that covered the surface of the altar like a clandestine joy, like an urgent heart, like a hope exhausted, already, by so much pretence.
Those who stayed until late paused to inspect the rows and niches, and some told me how, after being there several hours, observing intently some grave or other, they had seen emerge a small puff of air or, perhaps, smoke that suddenly took flight. They assured me that these small clouds were the dead, leaving forever—they were the ones who, for all eternity, and in body and soul, were departing from the earth. But others said that a being never dies, and that those little clouds were made up of the wishes of the devoted: the aspiration for a particular employment, the ambition for a particular designation, a potential promotion.
In other miracles, the disciples of Sarita Colonia do not believe. Or rather, they do not believe in the miracle of the traditional saint. They are not astonished that someone might fly, converse with the devil or pass through walls. Neither hell nor glory are important to them, because if they exist, they occur after death, and these people prefer to die in order to die, and to apportion what remains for themselves. The ferocious fire pits that are reserved for sinners must be slightly more tepid than the sorrowful floor of Lima. On the other hand, the promise of eternal life seems little more than scornful to those who would prefer that all of this be done with once and for all. They think of the dead as dead, but when the idea of eternal life arises, they envisage the dead lurking around some wrong entrance to heaven because, in this life, the main door was never open to them. And others ultimately insist that perhaps they will start to think of the infinite perpetuity of that place above when down here below there is an end once and for all with cold, with misery, with infirmity and with the negligence of God.
Surely Sarita, submerged in air, could observe on that Monday, as I did, the man of the powerful hand. The eyes of all the people were on him because he would not let the queue advance, but when the man of the powerful hand looked at them, they fell silent. I think he had the look of a waiting man who is bored of waiting for the lines on his palm to run a different course.
I was told that, at least once a month, the man would arrive at the cemetery and, when that happened, the prudent preferred not to interfere with him. It was believed that many deaths were attributable to that hand and this strange man was bound by some memory or some remorse. That must be why, when he comes to the altar, his right hand simply will not let him cross himself. He simply throws a glare, whispers a wish, a wish that seems rather more like a command, and continues on his way. Nobody interrupts him because they say that he is the man of the powerful hand. But some reject the general opinion, refute that he is a criminal, and claim that he is a saint: they say that this man was already weeping as he dreamt in his mother’s womb.
If there is anyone who knows the truth about the dying moments of Sarita Colonia it is that guy whom they called the man of the powerful hand, that’s what some say. But this man does not speak, he does not murmur or argue or parley, is not accustomed to the ways of feeble man because power, if it exists, is silent: he does not need to converse in order to impose his will.
Those who do speak, and speak to death, are Juan Burro and the Ambassador of Quiquijana, two folkloric singers for whom not even a hand-to-hand battle in the heart of the Coliseum could resolve their intractable rivalry. Burro’s songs relate, one by one, each of Sarita’s scared steps through Huaraz during her infancy but, when the story continues in Callao, Burro loses the tune, contradicts himself, becomes incoherent, ends up singing prayers and God only knows if God hears them. And of all of this the Ambassador takes advantage to pronounce that all that is sung is false, and that God has more important things to do than to listen to a weak-bladdered fool reciting his litanies.
And the people grow weary, leaving to one side the polemic of singers in order to continue watching the man of the powerful hand. Eleodoro Vargas, healed by Sarita of who knows what ailments or what crimes, has said, in the cemetery, that “a man’s lifeblood is to be consumed each day by striving, working…” But it is also man’s silent curse, which is why the people tend to believe more in those who do not speak.
And because of this they assure me that the man of the powerful hand was the first to witness the manifestation of Sarita. It is probable that she did not even see him on that occasion. It is also possible that it was the time that the dead girl ascended in body and soul to the sky. They say that the man was alone in the cemetery. They say that he had gone there to purge a great sin. They say that he saw her clear as day. And that clear as day he saw a large ladder suspended upright over the tomb of the girl. They say that the girl roused herself like those who are sleeping. And that she then put one foot on the ladder and began, very slowly, to rise. And that the man let her ascend without saying a word because it is not good to rouse those who walk while sleeping, and much less to rouse those who, sleeping, climb a ladder. They say that it was then that Sarita ascended to the heavens.
That Monday, the saintess conceded me one certainty: this book would write itself. The songs of Burro and the Ambassador would show me the path to start to knit together the life of Sarita Colonia. Of course they, in their turn, would unknit the story by way of their constant contradiction, the fruit of a rivalry that binds them together inextricably.
“The book will write itself. After this, it will depart.” Certainly that is what I heard, but I did not fully understand it. In any case, that inaudible voice continued to say to me that the pieces of the narrative would have to come together of their own volition, slotting together like a jigsaw, tethering themselves, this piece with that piece, in line with fate, obeying the precise and unalterable laws that govern all dreams and put the universe into motion.