It's not good to dwell too much. On anything. Take, for example, a word - say 'needle' - and try to concentrate on it repeatedly. After a while, it loses its meaning, becomes just a sound, and starts to seem artificial and alien: 'nee-d-le'. And so it is with everything.
Even with that night's incident, it's the same. The longer I ponder the whole thing, the more it disintegrates into images and sounds that together make no sense. It's as if it were just a weird dream. A dream in full consciousness.
It was 1979 in southern Mexico. I was returning home for the weekend to the city. As I did every week. I am an archaeologist, and my workplace is the countryside, so, unlike all normal people, I flee nature for the noise of the streets and a bit of comfort.
At that time, we were uncovering an Olmec settlement, peculiar in that it wasn't situated in the plains, as most were, but in a remote valley of the Los Tuxtlas mountain range. We found remains of a stadium where, over three millennia ago, these precursors of the Mayas and Aztecs played their ritual football, after which the captains of the losing teams would lose their heads.
But even in the most interesting work, one still needs a change. After a week of work in sweltering heat interspersed with tropical rains, I longed for a normal bed and two days in mud-free clothes.
The mountain paths took about five to six hours by jeep back to civilization, so I was pleased that I managed to set off fairly early that evening. It had started raining so heavily in the afternoon that we had to interrupt our fieldwork.
The winding road through the jungle was dangerously soggy in places, so I made slower progress than usual. Paradoxically, however, that night it didn't bother me because I had fewer reasons to be bored on that long and overly familiar route.
Around one in the morning, the clouds parted, and the sky above the mountain ridges was replaced by droplets of stars. I stopped somewhere to rub my eyes and stretch my stiff muscles. Sitting on the warm hood of the car, the last cup of coffee from the thermos in my hand, I gazed at Orion, majestically shining right above my head, with the wonder of a little boy.
The narrow mountain road was deserted, and the whole area was completely silent. It was as if the world around me had held its breath for a moment. Like when something is about to happen - or has just happened. The air smelled of fresh ozone after the rain. In this tranquility, I suddenly realized how tired I was. My eyes began to close, but after a few minutes, I forced myself to move on. I had less than two hours to get home.
A long downhill stretch followed. I didn't even start the engine and silently, like a ghost, glided past the first sleeping houses and settlements into the valley. Down by the river, there was an overgrown narrow-gauge track from the twenties. No train had passed through there for several decades, and it was almost completely lost in the lush vegetation. I usually just flew past the twisted wooden barriers, but this time I had to suddenly slam the brakes.
Not because of a train, of course. But the fact that there was a female figure standing at the crossing surprised me only slightly less. At first, I wanted to scold her for lingering in complete darkness in the middle of the road, but then I stopped myself. It was a slender, very young girl. She came to the passenger window and quietly asked if I could take her down to the village.
"Sure, come on, get in!" I moved my stuff from the passenger seat, reached over, and opened the door for her. "Where did you come from at such an hour, girl?"
She shrugged and smiled: "The fiesta, right?" Then she quietly curled up in the seat, and it was clear she wasn’t much for talking. I myself had hitchhiked once and knew how annoying it can be when every driver asks the same trivial questions. From her whisper, I only learned that her name was Alma and that she was in a hurry to get home to her father.
It was clear to me that her 'fiesta' was just an excuse. St. John's Night was supposed to be the next day, on Saturday. I myself was looking forward to a lively weekend in the city. Maybe she's coming from a failed date. Or she ran away from home and is now returning with a backpack full of guilty conscience. In any case, it was not my business.
At the edge of the village, actually just a few miles further, she raised her hand and with her serious, sad smile, she showed me a turn-off that led us to an old homestead nestled right by the forest. I remember her shining eyes, though today I don’t understand how that's possible since it was pitch dark in the car.
In one window of the house, there was still a light on, from which I inferred - as it would soon turn out, wrongly - that she was expected. I briefly honked the horn: just enough to signal, but not to unnecessarily wake any sleepers.
After a moment, a slow shadow appeared behind the screen door. An older but still robust man opened it.
I leaned out of the car window and waved to him: "Excuse me, sir - I hope I didn't wake you? ... I'm bringing your daughter!" The last part I said with a smile, appointing myself a knight rescuing damsels.
The old man just stared at me for a long time. He didn't respond, didn't move, just stared gloomily.
It seemed like an eternity before he spoke. He had a deep and distinctive voice, but he spoke slowly and quietly, as if exhausted: "Man, I really don't understand what all of you want. I've really had enough of these stupid jokes."
His reply completely baffled me. "Excuse me, but..." I began, but when I turned to exchange a glance with my passenger, my voice stuck in my throat and a shiver ran through my body. The seat next to me was empty!
"What does this mean?" I muttered and quickly got out. I believe I was quite startled. I circled the vehicle a few times, but there was no sign of the girl. All around, there was only the black void of the summer night. And that silent man, a large, slightly bent, motionless silhouette against the faint light coming from the house door.
Several dogs behind the fence began to bark sleepily. I remember wondering: "Why only now?" I also became aware of the ubiquitous chirping of cicadas. Suddenly, the darkness seemed full of sounds. I shivered when I realized the chill of the night turning into morning. My hands and feet were covered in goosebumps.
The man still just scrutinized my confused actions. Finally, he said: "Get off my property, man. Immediately." They were words of anger, but they had a more ponderous tone.
I shook my head in confusion. Maybe that girl thought I would ask for money, so she quietly slipped away when I stopped. Maybe she lost her nerve at the last moment. Or it was just a very stupid joke. And the old grump thinks I'm making fun of him!
I hate it when people jump to conclusions. That laziness of thought, narrow-mindedness. Angrily, I got back into the car and instead of saying goodbye, I left only the screeching echo of spinning wheels behind me.
At home, I plunged into bed and in the flurry of other events, I completely forgot about the whole thing for a few days.
But since then, every Friday night, when I passed that old railroad crossing, I involuntarily slowed down and cautiously looked around, wondering if I would see that girl again. I convinced myself it made no sense - why would she hitchhike a second time right there and at such a time. But it was the place that reminded me of her and I always had to think for a moment about that strange night.
Once, several months later, I was returning to the city exceptionally during the day. Despite the anger still gnawing at me, I decided to stop by that grumpy guy's place. I hoped he could help me understand what had actually happened that night.
The house looked completely different than it did that night. But it wasn't just the colours or sounds that made the difference. The house had clearly been abandoned for some time. Someone had already knocked out a few of the windows that lacked shutters, there were a few black holes yawning in the roof where tiles had fallen off, and the first tufts of grass had taken root in the rain gutters. A plank was nailed crosswise over the door.
The mailbox still had a faded nameplate: Ernesto Gómez Pachayo. I thought I'd try to find the guy in the phone book.
I was already starting the car, but something made me turn off the engine and get out again. In a clearing in the eucalyptus grove, which seemed to be part of the forest opposite the house, was a fresh grave. At first, I thought the old man had died. But that was unlikely - who would bury their father by the house and then abandon it?
It wasn't until I got closer that I realized it wasn't a new grave. Those eucalyptuses had clearly been planted after the burial. I was confused by the bouquet of fresh flowers lying on it. In contrast to the rundown house and surroundings, it was an incredible sight.
It was surely the notorious professional bias that drove me to investigate who lay buried there. The years carved into the wooden cross were relatively clearly legible: 1944 - 1961. The name seemed to be completely missing. But I managed to decipher, more by touch than sight, two other little words. It read: 'dearest soul'.
I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
I probably won't ever find a full explanation. Despite all my efforts, I never managed to find Ernesto Pachayo; the valley is now full of new buildings, and there’s no trace left of the old homestead, the grave, or even the forest.
I try to convince myself it was just a coincidence. After a busy week and a strenuous drive through muddy mountain roads, maybe I had some hallucinations. The poor old man I bothered in the early morning had every right to wonder what I was rambling about. That grave probably belonged to his deceased wife. She must have died very young, maybe in childbirth? And old Ernesto, certainly at the urging and to the great joy of his daughter, moved from the solitude to the city in his old age. Actually, who knows, maybe I never met any Ernesto and the house seemed familiar only because I had seen one like it in a dream. I really don't know.
Yet, I can't forget the whole story. Even now, after many years, I sometimes wake up at night with the realization that I dreamt of the pale, sad face of that delicate girl. It's because a few things about the whole incident just don't make sense. Mainly, I feel that it wasn't a dream. How to understand Ernesto's strange words? Furthermore, yes, I know Alma is a relatively common name in the Hispanic world, but I still ponder the fact that the word also means 'soul'. And I also found out that St. John's Night fell on a Friday just in 1961.
On such nights, I then gaze into the darkness for a long time and ask in vain, 'God, who did I open the door for that early morning, at that old railroad crossing?'
Translation of the Slovak original Alma from Sunday, January 8, 1995.
Strijdersstraat 35, Sint-Agatha-Berchem, Belgium
December 6, 2023, December 30, 2023, December 31, 2023
ENGLISH SLOVAK ARTICLEFEBRUARY 24, 2024 AT 23:05:16 UTC