She came to us after Mass.
We had watched the people leaving the church, the men pulling on gloves, the women buttoning coats against the chill June air. Older women, dressed in black, tightening their headscarves. Always a good opportunity for some money, using all that guilt, that longing for a better world, that recognition that there might be a God. So we pulled the thin blanket tighter, sat upright on the newspaper, stared into their faces, held out our hands.
Most people looked away, embarrassed by our youth, repulsed by our smell perhaps. Wishing we were invisible. But some looked, even if only to shake their heads. Perhaps to wonder why we were there, who our parents were and where they might be. A few gave money, coins we grasped in our dirty chipped-nailed fingers, slid into pockets, saved for later. Then the woman came.
She stood for a moment, deciding. Searched our faces, considered walking away, dismissing the thought, the belief, the commitment. But she had already decided really. The choice had been made, while she stood before the icon, while she lit the candle, while she allowed herself, for one brief second, to truly seek her God’s face. So she leaned towards me, worried that she might be seen, asked if I was the eldest. Did we sleep here at night? Did we have no shelter now it was winter?
I indicated that I was in charge, suspicious of her motives, nodded slowly, not wanting to commit, ready to deny it in a whisper. For shelter, I glanced upwards, at the high concrete overhang. Not that it was much shelter. When it rained, the water would find a way through, run in rivulets along the broken paving slabs, often soaking the newspaper we lay on for warmth.
Sometimes we used one of the abandoned theatres opposite a faded villa, the weathered gargoyles scowling at us as we pushed through a gap in the boarded up door. But it was always full of empty bottles. It was safer on the street. The cold was less of a threat than the drunken adults who lurked in the shadows of forgotten buildings.
When she told me to come, it was so faint, I barely heard her. The muttered address, the specific time, all whispered in a hurry. Hopeful perhaps that I would mishear, arrive too late or in the wrong place. That she could absolve her conscience by having tried whilst failing to deliver.
I thought about it all day. We sorted through the litter bins in Plaza San Martin, hopeful a wasteful tourist may have thrown away food. Or a bereaved relative, come to find a name on the wall of names, losing their appetite, throwing away their lunch. We watched the fat birds perched on the statues and wished we were them, could fly over the city, up to the sun.
When I told the others, sitting on the steps, looking back at the old clock tower, they wanted to go, to try our luck. What did we have to lose? There might be some food involved. So we went.
It wasn’t far. We left our blankets folded in their place, pushed back against the shop front. So we could come back later, our shelter would be reserved. If it rained, dry space would be hard to find.
We stayed on the main road, away from the broken roofed station, past the memorials and the park. It wasn’t an area we frequented, too full of tourists for the police to turn a blind eye. Too many rich people with carefully made up faces and stomachs full from the parilla. We followed the road, the black and yellow taxis speeding past, the occasional lorry slogging through the city from the pampas, stacked high with produce to sell.
We waited outside, loitering under the giant gum tree, its branches spread as wide as its height. We were early, not wanting to miss something that might be good. Or might not. But we could run if we needed to, back to the anonymity of the disused tracks.
We watched customers leaving the French cafe, the taxis waiting for fares in the little square, the stall holders packing up their wares. When the square was empty, only the pigeons left to find stray crumbs, she came. Hurrying across the faded grass, anxiety in every limb, every glance. She stood at a distance, checked we were unobserved, beckoned us over, turned and hastened back inside. We followed.
Afterwards, we could never be sure why we had. Why had we trusted her, risked walking through the arched entrance, let her pull the gates closed behind us, turn the key in the lock? Let her lead us past the map that guided visitors, through the wide doorway, onto the pathway beyond. Hidden by high stone walls, unseen.
We stood there. Five of us. Ragged and hungry and alone. No one to miss us. No one to care. No one to even notice.
We stood amongst the dead. On every side, the stone booths of the rich and famous protected their remains. Pointed roofed cathedrals, statues of angels, marble shelters. I knew this place. I knew the bereaved visited and the curious. People came to see the statues, the monuments, the plaques. They sought dead relatives, famous writers, the final resting place of Evita.
Beyond the perimeter, reaching towards the sky were the windows of tall buildings, like many eyes watching. An old man approached, as ancient as the tombs, stared at us, smiled a toothless smile, nodded at the woman. She turned to me, all business. Confident now we were unwatched, no possible witnesses.
“You came. Good. I wasn’t sure if you would. I must leave soon, I cannot be late home. But this is Juan. He works here, cleaning the graves. You can stay, it will be sheltered. There are blankets – and food, I can bring more each day, I will leave it somewhere in the evenings, when I lock up to go home. You can use the public washrooms, for water, but you must leave them clean. There must be no sign of you. You must be invisible,” she spoke in a rush, a rehearsed speech.
She paused. Not wanting to say it but knowing that she must.
“You can stay, but… in the daytime, when the cemetery is open, you must be hidden. Juan will show you, there is a place, below ground, where one of the coffins was stored. You can sleep, in the day, when there are people.
“At night,” she continued,”when the gates are locked, you will be free. You can run and play and be safe.”
She stopped, unsure now. Her eyes on my face, seeking reassurance, needing to know that this was better. That to have shelter and food and safety was better than the streets. But I didn’t know.
True, it would be easier to care for the little ones, good to escape the weather, the hunger, the predators. And it wasn’t the dark that scared me. Or the restricted movement in the day.
I looked into her eyes, saw kindness and concern. Knew she wanted to help.
“But,” I whispered, “but, what about the ghosts?”
She knelt then, placed two warm hands on my shoulders, peered straight into my eyes.
“You don’t need to worry about them,” she said. “You are the ghosts now.”
And so it was.
Juan led us to some rusted iron gates, unlocked the chain and they creaked open. He told us that this was a good shelter to choose, there was a cat who slept there, who would keep the mice away. We filed inside, over dead leaves that had blown inside, down steep stone steps to the tiny cavern below. There was a shelf – cleaned now, stacked with blankets, and I wondered briefly where Juan had moved the remains to, which coffin was now in the wrong vault.
Then I busied myself with blankets, helping to settle the little ones, to stop them eating all the food we had been left. Juan showed us how to loop the chain back through the gates, so they would look secure, so none of the visitors would attempt to disturb us.
We lived in the cemetery. We ate the food she left for us each evening, we slept on dry blankets in the safe shelter below the ground. Sometimes we would hear Juan, he often swept near our vault when there were tourists, a careful guard, covering any noise we might make, ever watchful.
But best of all, when it was dark, we would run and laugh and play. The high buildings outside added their lights to the stars, watched as we pretended to dance the tango in the city of the dead. We learned how to be children again.
Sometimes, when it is very dark, people walking past La Recoleta, fancy that they hear voices from within the high walls. The sound of laughter carries on the wind, and they hurry away, telling themselves they are imagining things, that the dead don’t giggle. Which is right. Dead people do not laugh nor dance nor play. But we do. We are the ghosts of La Recoleta.
Thank you for reading.
We visited La Recoleta during our trip to Argentina. You can read my holiday diary at: