Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hail, Columbia! Part Two

My little excursion to Columbia, last Sunday, had a profound effect on me. Although I pass through town often, the street I travel only skirts the edges. It had been years since I actually walked through town and into The Rocks.

Now, The Rocks are eternal, or as much so as anything on this planet can be. In my youth, they ringed Columbia, stark and white as the closing jaws of a Great White shark, stripped of all vegetation. But something was wrong when I followed one of my usual trails, at the south end of town, into the labyrinthine ways of The Rocks.

Where once there had been sheer walls of roughened marble, there were now lattices of wild grape. Blind alleyways that used to be excellent hiding places were now blocked by stout Trees of Heaven. Sloping boulders where we used to run and jump, safe on a skid-proof surface with a texture like coarse sandpaper, were now slick and un-scalable with thick coats of moss. 

 I sat in the depths of this marble fortress and contemplated the passage of time and the recidivism of nature. Already, The Rocks of my childhood were gone. Their ghostly white had weathered and oxidized to dark gray. Thick patches of moss and lichen further altered their color. Weeds and trees had taken root and their fallen leaves were filling up hollow spaces, decomposing, and making fertile soil for still more weeds and trees. Gradually, biomass was having a leveling effect and the The Rocks were being truncated by the debris at their base. In another hundred years or so, I suddenly realized, these wonders from the deeps would once again be underground!

I was witnessing a giant, terrestrial hour glass filling up, and I can tell you, there’s nothing like it for putting you in touch with your own mortality! When I rose from my ponderings and moved on, I felt a bit ghostly, myself.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that, at just this juncture in my wanderings, I should encounter my first ghost. At least, that is how I interpreted the sudden whited-out spot on my camera’s screen, which had been functioning perfectly before, and would function perfectly afterward.

I was in the vicinity of  some old timbers that seemed to indicate the former existence of a building, possibly a miner’s cabin, with which the whole area was once dotted. I liked the composition of dark, squared and weathered beams against the lighter gray, amorphous stone. I clicked away – but every picture was marred by a big spot where the color was leached out of the image. Thinking the sun was hitting my lens, I moved to a different angle, but with the same result.

I had experienced this phenomenon once before, at the bottom of Copper Canyon, in the early 17th-century silver mining town of Batopilas. In the church there stands a marvelous wooden image of la Virgen and I was deeply desirous of a photograph of her. However, try as I might, every single picture came out blurred in a strangely wavering way, like city lights spread across the surface of the night ocean. I changed my settings; I changed my position; I squatted down; I stood on tiptoes. Nada. Finally, I had to recognize it: this Virgen does not want to be photographed!
 Only, in this case, someone apparently did want to be photographed! They hogged the center of every image. Finally, I again had to realize: this situation was not going to improve. I left the area. My photos returned to normal.

Ghosts abound in Columbia. As a child I was aware of them; could see them flitting across my peripheral vision; felt their other-worldly coolth brushing against my young skin. The Fallon House, a hotel and theater in the old days, was so haunted that, despite my driving curiosity to explore its depths while my sister trilled away at her voice lessons next to the square grand piano in the lobby, I could not penetrate past a certain point. Here, the air grew suddenly cold and clammy and a deeper than black darkness descended on the already umbrous interior. The hair on my head would prickle and lift in alarm and, despite my best resolve, I would turn tail and retreat.
Like many of the old brick buildings, the Fallon House had been shored up against collapse by the addition of steel I-beams, during the 1950s. These spanned the second floor of the building at about knee height, meaning that to walk there one would take two steps, pause to step over the obstacle, take two more steps, stop and step over, in a laborious, halting pattern.

One night, I witnessed a group of adult friends, who had been chatting beneath the second floor balcony, suddenly look at one another in alarm. In an excited cluster, they dashed into the street and stood staring up at the balcony. They had heard, they told me, footsteps crossing the upstairs floor, then the balcony French doors opening and closing, and footsteps crossing the balcony to the railing.

The amazing part was, the footsteps walked across the floor unhindered by the I-beams! The balcony doors were not only locked but nailed shut. And of course, when they looked up onto the balcony, there was no one there.

Encounters like this are not exactly commonplace but they occur frequently enough that many longtime residents have had them. It is simply an accepted fact among locals that, in Columbia, the veil between the dimensions is thin and time present and time past are running contiguously.

Growing up in such a milieu marks one’s character. It gives a certain tincture of pond water to the aura; a certain level of comfort with the uncanny. It makes for a personal philosophy that stands somewhat apart from the average; for a personality that is – how shall I put this delicately – different. When others were playing with dolls or watching The Mickey Mouse Club, we Columbia kids were touching the foggy borders of time with tentative, curious fingers and drawing them back, marked for life with the indelible tattoo of Columbia’s strangeness.

One last story will suffice to demonstrate this. The old City Hotel was closed, in those days, and for some strange reason its lobby was used to display a horse-drawn hearse, the kind with thick, beveled glass all around and a brass bier for the coffin. It was all in black wood, heavy, massive and beautifully crafted.

I was probably around ten, one somber winter late afternoon, when I first discovered it, by placing my face to the glass of the tall double hotel doors and peering into the unlighted interior. Slowly, my eyes made out the looming shape of the hearse. Very gradually, my mind took in the use to which this conveyance would have been put. I was staring, rapt, at this harbinger of death when, suddenly – oh, God! – I saw that there was someone in the hearse! Instantly I was locked in a kind of paralysis of fascination and horror! I stared, mouth agape, too terrified to scream.

This poor, doomed creature had its hands up against the glass, as if pressing frantically for egress, and its face was frozen in terror. My lifelong claustrophobia may have had its genesis in that vision. Only slowly -- veeeeeery slowly -- did my mind comprehend that it was myself I was seeing in there. And only many moments after that did I realize that this vision of myself was merely a reflection.

During those moments of incomprehension, when the pale white face staring wild-eyed out of the hearse’s glass box was my own, my life was altered, irrevocably. Some children are scarred by learning too early that there is no Santa Claus. For better or worse, I had gone a few steps further and had my innocence ripped away to reveal the inevitability of death.

It is a message that the slow sinking of The Rocks reiterated, last Sunday. And yet, it was also revealed as a lie – otherwise, how could there be that white spot on the photos, those footsteps on the balcony, those sudden cold spots in otherwise warm rooms? No, the ghosts of Columbia will not let that lie stand – even though, doubtlessly, some of them, in the last life, loved their tall tales. Life, they announce by their very presence, never ends. And just like The Rocks, it is carried for a time in the deep darkness of mystery; surfaces into the light for a time, marvelous in form; then dives down again, to await the next incarnation.

Next time, we’ll take a ramble through town and I’ll share a few memories: the people trapped in the rocks; playing ball with mercury; barely escaping an army of high-buttoned shoes; and the gypsies who came a-calling. Until then, may you treasure the precious moments of your wondrous, light-filled life.

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