Whether or not I saw a ghost that night doesn't seem to matter much now; it was just part of the surrealism of my trip to Colombia. I was there to visit my father. I was twenty and I hadn't seen him or Colombia since I was a baby and we were strangers trying to get to know one another. My father's need to introduce me to my birthplace—his beloved city of Popayán—surpassed his interest in me as a burgeoning adult, and the ghost of me as an infant was more real to him than the flesh-and-blood adult me. To my father, I was a perpetual child and he bought me candies and gum, took me to ice cream parlors, and kept a close watch over me. That night was the first time he had let me out of his sight since my arrival.
I had been entrusted to his wife's nieces, Maria Fernanda and Maria Alejandra. The sisters didn't look alike, but I could never keep track of who was who. One had a long black ponytail and the other short, cropped hair. One was fair-skinned and the other was brown. A year or two older than me, they took me under their proverbial wings and made me an honorary cousin. Maybe it was their unconditional acceptance that makes them blend together in my memory.
That night they were—in a cloud of laughter and stories I didn't understand—leading this whirlwind tour of Popayán. I don't know who was driving, but I remember being shoulder to shoulder with Maria Fernanda and Maria Alejandra in the back of a small blue car. We whipped around the roundabouts and the low whitewashed buildings slid by me in a blur of history and ethereal relationships. Maria Fernanda and Maria Alejandra and the other friends and cousins in the car narrated the tour: there is the plaza principal, the correo, the Pueblito Patojo, the home of los primos.
As the sun set, the terracotta roof tiles threw shadows of undulating curves on the milky white canvas of the buildings. We turned down a dark narrow street and the driver came to an abrupt stop halfway on the curb. A dusty fountain stood dry and grey in the middle of a small plaza where the cobbles had been patched and repaired with a hodge-podge of cement and asphalt. Across a narrow street from the fountain stood the wooden doors of a church.
"Let's go see la fantasma," someone shouted as the car doors flung open.
"This is where the nuns live," explained Maria Fernanda—or was it Maria Alejandra? "And there's a ghost woman there."
The force of this group of strangers propelled me toward the heavy doors. I watched my cousin's long black braid swing against her back as she skipped across the plaza.
I hung back, knowing I didn't fit in. After all, I was an American and a pragmatist, and I knew that there would be no ghosts, that spirits did not walk the cobbled streets or aisles of churches. Even standing in this square in this South American city, I hung on to what was real—a carload of twenty-somethings, the lingering smell of mangoes, the new leather shoes bought by my father.
My father was a proud and native Colombiano, but when he was in high school his parents shipped him off to a small town in upstate New York. As the only foreign, non-white living among 1950s east coast society, he should have been an outsider, an interloper. But he was welcomed. He was popular, attractive, mysterious and romantic. He played football—American football—and posed for pictures with an impish grin. He loved the ice and cold, and the white snow reminded him of his colonial hometown. The art he developed as an adolescent and adult reflected his love of white on white, shape and shadow, light and dark. As a young man in the Sixties he embraced the beads and hashish of the hippie movement, and Kahil Gibran's The Prophet was his only spiritual manual. Despite a typical Catholic upbringing, his religion was art. During my visit, I was not given a tour of the churches or the rich history of post-colonialism. His interest was in architecture, in the physical world of line and brick and tile. We visited a chapel, but only to examine the way the sun moved across the window frame.
My mother had raised me in the United States without any formal religion. She avoided the Minnesotan Lutherans and balked at attending services. Even as a child, I internalized her religious ambivalence. Although we did occasionally make an appearance at one church or another, the notion of organized religion or faith was nonexistent. All she believed in was nature. A red-winged blackbird spotted on a freeway overpass was a reason to pause and reflect on the enormity of the world. A silent lake and orange sunset could stall dinner for the foreseeable future. An owl perched on a branch, startled by our headlights, was enough to wake a sleeping child late at night.
As I followed Maria Fernanda and Maria Alejandra to the chapel, one of them told me the story of la fantasma. Who she was. Why she was there. Why the nuns kept her sequestered in that cathedral. The others listened and nodded at her stories, and I couldn't tell if they were nodding because it was true or because they had heard these stories their whole lives. I nodded too, although I lost the trail of the narrative several times. The stories involved a colloquial Spanish vocabulary beyond my linguistic abilities and my mind wandered to Allende, García Márquez, Borges. I had read enough magical realism to know that Latin America is fond of the imaginary. In South America, the line between real and fantasy is blurry. Just like the division between political protest and drug smuggling is permeable, the demarcation between good and bad is changeable, malleable, and fluid. Ancient family trees intertwine and heal where they've been hacked down. Friends can become enemies as easily as acquaintances can become family. The line tends to be a moving target and instead of questioning, it's better to just accept. So when we approached the church, I dutifully followed my guides, stepping behind them as they crept up to the huge doors.
The doors were out of a movie set. Black hinges, darkened with age, were rusted in places where relentless winter rains had pounded. My rowdy compadres were dwarfed by the massive slabs of wood and heavy iron handles.
"It's locked; we can't go in," someone said
"Look through there." He pointed to the space between the doors.
One of the boys leaned in, his black hair brushing the wood.
"I can see something!"
There was a scuffle as everyone tried to look through the crack. I stood back a bit, waiting for the childishness to end, not wanting to take up the space that should be allotted to a believer.
And then: "¡La veo!" someone shouted. "I see her!"
I was the last one to move towards the doors. Someone pushed me forward, sensing my reluctance. And I leaned in.
Growing up, I was religiously non-religious. I had heard of Noah and his ark but my theological education didn't go much further than that. While my childhood friends were at Sunday school, my mother and I were exploring the woods at my grandparents' cabin, studying chickadees and red squirrels, reading the stories of A. A. Milne and James Thurber.
When I did finally join a church, it was under duress. I was a teenager and I had a new stepfather who had decided that church membership could conform his blended family into normalcy. Despite my resentment, the neighborhood Presbyterian church turned out to be my salvation. Not for its scripture or prayer, but for the shelter it provided from the existential angst of adolescence. Desperate to connect with other people, I found friends, plenty of dates, and even my future husband there. The community of that church, even without religion, gave me the family I needed at a time when my own fell short.
Once, when I was alone in the ugly, mid-Seventies sanctuary, I stole a Bible. I was able to rationalize as I suppose most thieves are. I had missed out on Sunday school and those Bibles that are handed out to ten-year-olds. It was a Revised Standard Version and I remember a plate in the front dedicating it to the church from some long-forgotten family. I took it home and thumbed through the gold-foiled pages and found the Psalms and they looked like poetry. The text of the Psalms was black and white, could be touched and felt, and I knew they were real. Whether they had been written by the hand of God was something for believers to determine. Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. Now I find the bookmarks and try to remember what meaning my fifteen-year-old self found in the passages.
Through the space between the heavy doors I saw light, as if from a candle, many candles, as if seen through a camera's soft focus filter. I leaned in until my forehead was pressed against the rough wood. I could feel the splinters scratch my face, and the damp cold of the mountain air played at the back of my neck. I tried to focus on the shadow of a black boot. The rough skirt of a wool habit. A hunched form shuffling past the candlelight. The swirl of Spanish surrounded me and the pungent scent of the old town tickled my nostrils. Colombia was all around me, below me, in me, through me. Hundreds of years of Indios and Católicos pushed against me. The songs of the slaves that had built the church and laid each brick echoed in my ears. I could feel the Colombian blood pulsing through my veins.
My eyes stung with the strain of keeping them open. I was afraid to blink in case I missed something. And then, just when I was starting to be sure—absolutely positive—that I had seen something, laughter erupted from the voices behind me and I closed my eyes for an instant. I turned to glance at them and then, before following, I peered through the crack in the door again. And I couldn't see anything. My heart pounded out the Colombian blood and I was once again American. It was dark in the chapel, no light, no figure, no glow. Just a darkened, nighttime, shuttered, Colonial iglesia waiting for morning mass.
Maria Alejandra gestured for me to follow the others who were already piling back into the little car. It was late and they would be returning me, safe and sound, to my father's house. Their conversation had already turned to other things; whether or not they had seen something behind those doors seemed to be of very little importance.
As I followed Maria Fernanda into the back seat she asked, "Did you see her?"
Like my parents, I believe in what I can see. A hawk in the clouds, a shadow reflected on a frozen lake. A dark line of paint or a soft brush of pencil. A heavy wooden door; cold iron hinges; a laughing, teasing group of young people; a ghost woman.
"Sí," I said and leaned back into the blue vinyl seat.