The entrance is quiet. It is the dead end of a street of car parts and empty garages. There is no billboard, no red carpet for the limousines of relatives. I choose not to advertise. The dead know where to find me: at the end.
Just keep driving. Glide. Apparitions glide.
They flow past my rusted fence. Have I let myself go? I never had the chance. Ghosts know where to go. The flow will always lead downhill.
Down into the shadow of the valley of death.
I enter through the rusted steel gate whose unhinged disposition looks permanent. This entrance into quietus never appears to close. It stands among vegetation, never manicured. I try to swing the human wire fence away from the gripping tendrils of the unkept wiregrass. It pivots with ease. This door plays dead. The swinging comes too easily now, reminding me how hard I pulled. I back up in terror to move away from the motion of the gate. It creaks as if this were the first time it’s been forced to leave its weed-ridden post. The sound is the constant moan of a booby-trapped door to an Egyptian tomb imprisoning the explorer to keep the secret safe. But this gate is moving to keep me out. In a cloud of rust the heavy gate slams into its lock. I panic, thinking I won’t be able to get back in. The rusted steel laughs at me with its rattle.
Abandon all hope, all who are living.
I am a door, that once closed will let none living enter.
Only the dead may slip past my steel skeleton as they find their new home.
Finding the opening at the close, I push the petrified door back open, quietly laying it back to its bed of grass. I turn my attention away from the threshold and step into a rocky stadium, void of spectators. No graves. No place to bury the dead, only to park your car. Automotive plots are not decided by painted lines but by a matrix of small gray olive trees. The faded color of the olive branches matches the color of the small stones covering the ground. Everything is a shade of what it used to be. Aside from the parking lot of olive trees, there is nothing stopping the procession of the living and the dead from moving downhill.
Gravity brings everything down towards the walls of tombs. No one looks uphill to the chapel and morgue. The parking lot serves as both the beginning and the end: there are two paths to take. But which one is the beginning? Which one is the end? The ground decides for me. There is no choice since walking downhill is much easier than its reverse. The architecture is the same color as the surrounding hills. The camouflage obscures no attention to signage and direction, but I know which way to go: down into the shadow of the valley of death. Concrete structures arise from the ground funneling ghost and mourner both further into its belly. These walls house hives of tombs. The pieces were made before arrival yet it seems there was no mention of encasing them with preservatives. Weather has not been kind to these tombs. Mildewed water stains create impressions of droughted miniature rivers from previous storms and trail every lip or break in the concrete. The dark gray color of the stains calls to mind River Styx. Like the entrance gate, these structures stand faithful to the test of time, but at a price. The building is dying. I can feel it. Or is it already dead on arrival, and this is just nature sweeping it back under the earth?
As I funnel down, the nameplates of the bodies housed in each square tomb begin to reveal themselves, one column at a time. Each tomb has a small porch on which flowers, candles, and other tokens of remembrance rest, close to the home of the ghosts. These presents to the dead are also dying. Flowers wilt. Candles have burned to their last. Watches no longer tick. This cemetery contains symbols of the state of death. Looking down at the ground, this motif of death’s passage continues itself even in the floor. Dead wooden logs scatter about the pebble-laced concrete. The wood erodes sometimes, leaving only its imprint in the concrete. Over time every log completes this vanishing act. The disappearance of a material, already dead and now disappearing again, gives life to this cemetery. There is no freeze in time. Time and place are constantly changing the face and spirit of the tombs. It is not all dead. The logs in the ground conform to their living cousins; trees also break the flooring in sporadic patterns through the middle of the aisle of tombs. Their small green leaves yield the only dash of color to the vicinity, apart from the melted red candles littering the porches of the tombs. Like everything else here, the color of the living fades to a dull gray: the dead leaves fall from their branches and spread across the ground in an ironic confetti. The party is a funeral.
The path funnels me down into the belly of the tombs.
[whispering and a low long extinguishing breath, almost inaudible]
… walk amongst the dead… You are dead…
The staircase breathes. It is distinguished by a concrete tongue hovering just off the ground. It is a diving board. It is the plank you traipse off just before falling into the sea of the dead. I stand still, attracted to it. To be grounded firmly and to be unbearably light is the experience the living can share with the non. It is not the springboard in the backyard but the most limber concrete could ever be. The tongue beckons all to enter its mouth. The mouth is topsy-turvy and the staircase curves, disallowing any true view to what is above. It is very dark with only harsh white light pouring down from the opening I could not see. The darkness is thick as it cuts through the tombs. The walls of the dead no longer act as a gaping tunnel, but instead a narrow funnel. The whispering continues but I turn away from the mouth as I am not ready to be consumed just yet. Walking further down into the belly of the beast, the hive-like tombs, seemed to hover, now end. Their replacement is a wall of rocks held together by an oxidized steel fish net. Within these walls are steel doors to mausoleums to house those who need more space of memory. The two walls meet to form the end of my passage on this floor. At the end of this line are stilted concrete panels that act as benches or steps to something important a long time ago. I turn around to realize how far I’ve come.
And there it is. The diving board of the dead. The staircase wants to consume me.
It is a sign, quieter than neon lights, but natural as etchings in tree bark.
The whispering amplifies.
Step into a monster of death. Step into death. You are dead.
I feel the breaths of the warped monster. The breeze moves through me as fast as it does down through the vortex of stairs. I cannot see the origin of respiration. Furthermore there is a pulse. I must discover the heart. I find myself putting my first step onto the concrete tongue. It oscillates slightly, but enough for me to realize I am on the edge of life. Entering from the rim of the platform frightens me more than climbing a ladder to walk out to the end of a high dive. The moment right before stepping up on the staircase feels exactly like the moment right before the jump. First step. I hold my breath. Chilling. Complete Silence. Second step. The maelstrom of the stair forces me to a point where there is no view to the outside. The gray water stains are on the interior walls. I feel myself stepping into the heart of darkness. I hear the breathing, the whispering more than ever before. It comes from the walls. There is a voice behind me.
You are dead. You are dead.
I am the only living soul here. Am I living? I am amongst the dead. I can feel their spirits as I pass through the heart of the tombs. I pause in the darkness for what seems like eternity. I close my eyes.
YOU ARE DEAD. YOU ARE DEAD.
I begin to take another step and find myself whispering what the staircase dictates.
I am dead. I am dead.
Another step. The ellipse stained concrete smells of embalmment. This is where the living can be dead, but only for a moment. Another step. Echoes of whispers begin to bounce around the bending wall to the outside. One more step. I come slowly around the corner, the warping walls guiding my hands. I open my eyes. A flood of exposure blinds me. Another step.
Head towards the light.
You are alive. You are alive.
The white light fades. I have walked through the threshold of death. Out of the ground I am resurrected. To rise out of the earth is the wish of everything buried six feet under. The ceiling folds up to allow me to once again enter into light. I have made the full evolution from life to death and back. I reach the top of the staircase and step past the cover of the folded flap of concrete earth. Back into the light. Back into the living.
I look around me and notice two things that do not belong in this place. One is the rectangular planters on the sides of the staircase. They do not match the death that has become the cemetery. These are afterthoughts. They pretend to house small shrubbery, (whose color is too green, like artificial grass of a football pitch), yet their real purpose is more shamefully significant. The planters guard the living from falling down the walls of the open staircase. Their channeling does not compare to the ethereality of how the tombs carve the subconscious of this promenade. Their bulkiness and poor positioning dissolve the sublimity of the natural stair. The second object out of place is a bench positioned in front of a second wall of tombs in front of which I had risen. Newly made, the wood has not had time to fade and the metal is still stainless. Another impostor to the land of the dying.
If I wanted people to sit I would have created my own benches.
This is not a time to sit. One must constantly flow through this landscape of ghosts by a downward meditation. The movement through this cemetery aids to a greater contemplation of death than sitting ever will.
Just keep moving.
A second stair stands right in line with the first. It is much wider without a tongue to attract me. There is no escape. Its mouth has already devoured me with a chapped upper lip of stained concrete. A look to the left. Tombs. A look to the right. More tombs. I walk the steps. My hand glides against surprisingly smooth concrete but the voices from the other side of the walls are not as loud this time. I can still hear their whispers.
You are dead.
The ceiling dips and pinches me. Another step past and I am released. My pace quickens and I reemerge from the ground through another lifted flap of earth. I am at the top of the hillside now.
Met with a solid wall, the upward path ends and I am allowed to walk on the roof of the tombs. The foreign planters only care for the stairs. The living are allowed to feel death but are withheld from accidentally embracing it. I can see down all the way into the valley to where my walk up through the dead had begun. I turn back from the cliff. Is the journey over?
No. There is a structure to the side whose mountainous camouflage cannot hide it any longer. Built into the hill, it is dark and ominous. I pass through no door, entering the empty void. There is no grand entry into this forgotten church. Is it even a church? Darkness prevails except for deliberate cuts into the roof; slashes, circles, and slabs tilting down reflect light onto the front of the room. The wells of light become smaller the further back the church cuts into the hill.
Enter into the dark.
Where is the altar? A ghostly mirage of a service manifests in the dark corner. I am drawn to it. There are small punch-outs of the back wall to bring slivers of light down into the corner. Slanted concrete trenches bring down the light and also manage to allow dirt and moss to accumulate. Out of the accumulated earth, weeds grow: life created out of death. Nested in the oval windows are blackened figurines of the Holy Mother. They have been placed as such for the light to embolden their silhouettes. The effigies populate the hollows as memoirs of souls without tombs. Forgotten souls remembered in forgotten spaces. Another is found within a column, revealing its underlying steel by an incomplete casket of concrete. Everything feels incomplete here. The life of the church is unfinished and slowly returning to its origins. Ashes to ashes. Unfinished materials allow nature to change them. Incomplete spaces allow bewilderment of how to occupy them. There is a bench by the second entrance and a fissured wall in the corner. I sit down to imagine what this chamber could become if it still lived. Apparitions of priests command the mourning into a service.
With the service continuing, I notice a whisper coming from the split in the wall. A steady breath comes from these parted, misaligned lips. The crack projects a hum of voices while the smell of eternalizing death pervades my senses. Taken aback, I must see what beckons behind that wall. The thin slit between the two walls only allows the attenuated sight of a turquoise colored room beyond. The mismatched division in the wall is too slim to slip through. There must be another door for the owners of the voices to have crept in. Walking out of the entrance of the chapel without doors, I see that the wall continues to suggest another building that would house the turquoise room. There is a door. It is metal and looks to be revolving as it is slightly open on both ends. I give the door a push but it does not move. It is frozen, slightly ajar. Only the vapors of the netherworld slip past. I follow the wall down until it ends and find another sliding door hidden on the side. It works. I step into the turquoise room. An undulating wall of green glass tile reflects the light coming in from a triangular glass ceiling. The curving tile pushes me down its hallway. The tiled wall hides something as it does not touch the ceiling that continues into a space beyond. The reflecting glass disallows any answers even when I step to touch the tile with my eyes. I continue down the bright hallway until I see a door hidden in matching tile left open. What could hide behind this wall? I take a breath and step past the threshold. One look at the sterile steel medical furniture, and I am unable to exhale.
This is the morgue.
Here people once napped but now sleep in their tombs.
I cannot breathe yet I smell death lingering. Like the chapel, this morgue is forgotten. It seems unused except for the stickers on the locker doors. They have been scratched off incompletely, allowing me to see the names and details of the corpses they have housed. The cold steel doors wear the palimpsest stickers like medals. Moving my hand down one of the doors I find myself grasping its handle. I pull and with a silent click it opens like the jaws of a solemn barracuda. Melancholy whispers flow out as if they have been trapped for years. I peer into the cramped chamber. Complete darkness. I turn back to look at the glass tiled wall to see the ghostly silhouettes of friends. They can’t see me but I can see them. They step closer to the green wall, trying to peer in just as I did. Their ghostly features sharpen the closer they look towards me. When their faces press right against the glass I can see every detail, every mole and freckle.
Come over here.
They step back and become ghosts again. I want them to put me into the locker. I have never seen their eyes grow wider. After shock comes acceptance. Everyone wants a turn. I am first. I pull out the smooth steel tongue and climb onto it. Lying packed like sardines in a crushed tin box, it is a perfect fit.
I inhale deeply.
It may be my last breath. Now comes the procession of sliding me into the darkness of the locker. The sliding wheels glide easily, almost as easily as they shut the square jaws. I am completely pushed in. The door is resistant to shut as if it somehow knows I am not dead and refuses me. The faces of ghosts peer in to see a last glimpse of me. Never have their faces been sharper. They move with the rotation of the door until it has become entirely shut. The silent click echoes in the endless belly of the locker’s abyss. I am no longer lying on a table but frozen in infinitely dark space. Absolute blackness. I feel the whispers again. I slip from reality. I cannot see. I can only hear. I have been eaten. My heartbeat slows as I have forgotten to breathe. This is not a space for breathing. This is a space for the dead. The whispers grow louder. I can hear them now.
Slip into the infinite dark.
You are dead. You are dead.
I am dead.
[ apparitions, diving board of the dead, enric miralles, igualada cemetery, james murray, staircase ]