Thursday, May 10, 2007

Ghost Stories of the Sierra III: Gerardo's Second Sight

It was Lizbeth's brother Pablo who added a missing link to the story as we sat around chatting while we looked after the otherwise empty house on the avenida Gutemberg.

According to Pablo, it had been six year-old Gerardo's disturbing visions that provoked Hugo and Lizbeth to perform the pagamento, or offering (literally 'payment'). A couple of weeks previously, when Pablo was on another visit down from Cabanaconde, the family had been sitting around the kitchen table, just before bed time. The back door was open, and Gerardo had wandered out to the patio.

Lizbeth got up from the table and went to get Gerardo to take him to bed. He was standing at the far end of the patio, staring fixedly out beyond the back garden, to where the lights of Arequipa flickered weakly into the darkness beneath the bulk of Nevado Chachani. He was waving his hand and saying in his childish voice, "bye bye...good bye".

"Who are you saying goodbye to?" asked Lizbeth. Gerardo looked up at her with a puzzled frown. "The souls", he replied.

The rest of the story Lizbeth had already told me with a kind of awed relish, though she refused when I asked her to retell it in detail a couple of evenings later. "I can't tell it at night time", she said. "It sends shivers down my spine".

According to her, it had been a routine decision that it was time to make a pagamento; a ritual which they had done several times before. Such a ceremony relates to the prehispanic practice of making offerings to the pachamama, the Mother Earth, to give thanks for her fruits. Like many aspects of Latin American culture, it has become creolized, mixed with Catholicism, and worked into urban middle class life.

Lizbeth had gone to find a local woman, expert in such matters, who had explained how they should carry out the ritual and what items should be included in the offering. Hugo and Lizbeth followed the instructions, wetting the earth around their front entrance and burying the designated items. Later the same day the woman came to their house, bringing some strange shells, stones and quartzes. She placed them on the mantelpiece and assured Lizbeth that they would bring extra good luck.

That night, Hugo and Lizbeth were in bed, watching TV and discussing what needed to be done the next day. For no apparent reason, an aloe plant sitting in the window fell to the ground. Lizbeth went and put it back in its place. Moments later, it fell down again. Then the door to their room swung open. Lizbeth got up and closed the door; a draught must have blown it open. This time, the door handle slowly turned, as if by an invisible hand, and the door was flung open again.

They both felt a force enter the room; a wind swept through the house, though it was a still night. A malignant energy coursed into the room.

"When an evil spirit comes, you can't show it fear", explained Lizbeth. "You have to swear and curse at it, tell it to be gone". This she tried to do, but the spirit was powerful. Hugo roused himself and went into the living room, shouting at the spirit. He found a bottle of holy water on a shelf and began to splash it around the room, ordering the spirit to leave.

" And then the idiot grabbed me by the arm" recounted Lizbeth. "So it passed from him to me, and I wasn't as strong". Objects were shaking on the shelves. A statue of the Virgin Mary crashed to the floor and cracked.

Eventually, Lizbeth thought of the shells on the mantelpiece. She picked them up and threw them out the front door. The turmoil subsided, and the malignant energy left the room

The next day, Lizbeth took the shells back to the woman. "These are not good", she told her. The woman shook her head and insisted that they were benign, bringers of good luck. "If you don't want them, you should get rid of them yourself", she said. But Lizbeth was admant that she was leaving the shells behind.

They also decided that the pagamento had been done wrong; they would need to dig it up and start again. But the next week when they excavated the site, the things they had buried weren't there; all they found was dog poo and the bones of what appeared to be a small animal.

A couple of weeks later, Gerardo and Renzo (who was visiting from Lima) were sent up to stay with their cousins in the sierra. Lizbeth's parents run the well-known Valle de Fuego hotel in Cabanaconde, while her brothers help with the business or farm the family lands.

One night in Cabanaconde there was an electricity outage, and the village was thrust into darkness; the fault couldn't be fixed until morning. Pablo's mother asked him to sleep with Gerardo and Renzo, as Gerardo refused to be alone in the pitch darkness. Pablo took them down to the family hotel, where he could sleep in the same room.

As he prepared for bed, he felt a strange and an accountable fear. In the night he slept poorly and was plagued by nightmares. "When I have bad dreams, I turn my pillow over to make them stop", he explained

Sometime after midnight, Gerardo woke up and began to cry out. "Nooo" he wailed. "I don't want to! I don't want to!"

Pablo was roused from his disturbed sleep. "What don't you want?", he asked.
"Please! I don't want to!" screamed Gerardo.

Pablo tried to comfort Gerardo, to ask him what the matter was. But Gerardo was as if possessed, and unable to speak coherently. Trembling, he tried to say something, but his tongue was stuck. Pablo thought Gerardo was trying to form the word "Emilia" - his grandmother, Pablo's mother.

"You want to go to Emilia?", he asked. He tried to think of something that would calm his nephew; he remembered that Gerardo had been excited the previous day about going for a horse ride. "Let's go find Emilia, to ride horses" Still trembling, Gerardo nodded. Pablo found his flashlight, and ferried his nephew the couple of blocks down to his mother's place, where he left him for the rest of the night.

In the morning they heard the news. Six drunkards had been quaffing meths in a local den. In the dark caused by the blackout, they had picked up the wrong bottle, one that contained poison. It was assumed that in their already inebriated state, they hadn't noticed what they were drinking. In the morning, all six were found dead.

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