Memento Mori

It was a hot and dry summer. The harsh air wrapped around clothes and skin, the heat stuck to your lungs, and it was as if an extraordinary force pressed hard against your chest every time you had to breathe.

I wouldn’t have minded the unscrupulous heat if I didn’t have to walk for almost two miles to my father’s apartment. He had moved out the previous spring, and now he lived all by himself, so once a week I would pay him a visit. We would talk for two or three hours about sports and politics and the weather, and he would cook me one of his exquisite steaks.

Every time I had to go see my father I had to pass a cemetery. It didn’t bother me. There was an imposing concrete wall surrounding it on all sides, white crosses covering its mussed surface. I thought the wall was there to offer some privacy to those who were no longer apart of this world, to shelter the dead from the crowded streets and the murmurs of agitation, from the incessant rumble of car engines. Or maybe it was only meant to discourage grave robbers.

Pine trees stood tall on the sidewalk, and it was as if time itself was suspended within the coolness and shade they provided, and a gentle, refreshing miasma rode on the breeze.

It was nothing unpleasant about having to pass a cemetery, nothing terrifying or sad. I could have avoided it, but I never did. It was on the shortest way to my father’s apartment, and I had nothing to worry about.

The days went by, torrid and mostly uneventful. I carried on with my writing, my father kept looking for a new job, our favorite teams kept losing.

One night my father telephoned me and told me that part of the cemetery’s wall had collapsed. No one had been injured, so I didn’t make much of it. The next day, when I went to see my father, I noticed that they had already placed an iron fence where the old wall used to be. It was the first time I saw how the graveyard looked like from the inside; decrepit gravestones and candles and grass and a few anemic trees. Flowers slowly rotted away in the boiling air.

But when I had to head back home from my visit, I noticed something. I was walking on the sidewalk and reading dates and names on the gravestones that were closest to the fence, and I saw a lot of identical headstones, all rising from the grass like crooked teeth. But there was something else; all of them had the same date of death. Almost worn out by the cruel passage of time, but it was still visible. Twenty third of September 1958. Rows upon rows of gravestones, all scarred with the same date.

I felt my temples burning, and the air felt stifled and harsh and almost dead against my skin. Cooking there in the sun, in what seemed to be such a desolate landscape, all those gravestones poisoning the air with darkness and death. I could feel it, whispering across my skin like the breeze close to the sea.

When I got home, I was practically drenched in sweat, and a mysterious ecstasy, both acute and painful, flooded my veins. I was gasping for air like a dying, old man. That night I went to see my mother and asked her if something had happened in 1958.

“What do you mean?”

“You know, disasters, stuff like that. Was there an earthquake? Or maybe a fire?”

“Why do you ask?”

I told her about the gravestones. She shrugged and said that she hadn’t heard about something happening in our town in 1958.

We resumed to eating dinner and watching late night game shows. But the question, the curiosity, persisted.

The next day, I went to see my grandfather and asked him about the graves.

“I don’t remember anything happening that year,” he said with a glazed expression on his face. He scratched his chin. “No, no, nothing happened.”

His memories had always been chaotic, like a strange web in a dark corner of a room. One of the cruel side-effects of being old, I suppose. So I thought it was just that.

I wanted to know the truth; I needed to find out what had happened on the twenty third of September 1958. Bodies were withering away inside deep holes, and no one seemed to know what had taken away their lives.

There was nothing on the internet, either. No fires, no earthquakes. At the public library, all the newspapers they had from that time, from days prior or after that date, contained no news about something of that magnitude happening. That left me baffled, to say the least. I couldn’t believe it to be possible. People had died, at least one hundred of them, and there was no proof of their death, nothing in the newspapers.

The twenty third of September 1958 had been a Friday, as common as they get. Not too hot, not too warm, a day that slowly marked the beginning of the end for a very hot summer.

It was as if people had gone to bed on the twenty second, and when the entire city emerged from its pathetic, dreamless slumber, it was already the twenty fourth. The city had skipped a day, had made some sort of compromise, a cruel and selfish cover-up.

I went to the graveyard and counted the headstones. I studied each and every one of them, I caressed the markings, the cold and decrepit stone – the only proof that something had, indeed, happened. There were no flowers or candles lying close to any of the graves. No one missed those poor souls; no one felt pity or remorse.

The gravediggers knew nothing about the hundred and twelve souls that had perished on the same date.

And no, graves are never, ever laid out in such a pattern. People buy gravesites, and when they die, they’re buried. That’s how it works. But there were one hundred and twelve gravestones that had the same date of death, one next to the other, identical headstones, indicating that they had all died in the same place, in the same manner.

I suppose that what enraged me was the bizarre sense of uselessness I got from all this. The past, with its demons and ghosts, should never be forgotten.

Whether you want it or not, everything in this world is temporary. Everything withers and dies like the most common of flowers. It’s not complicated.

I went home and took a long, cold shower. I scrubbed and scrubbed because I felt that there was a new skin, a thin pellicle that had been added to my own skin. But I couldn’t shed it, no matter how much I tried. Inside my small apartment, the air felt stagnant and hot.

There is only one great tragedy in life. And it happens to all of us. Sooner or later, whether we want it or not, we understand, in our own way and at our own pace, that we are temporary. We are going to die, it’s our ineffable destiny. There’s nothing more frightening than realizing that one day you are going to die.  After that life feels like an absurd struggle, some kind of stupid mime or insipid play carried on by bad actors. And death lingers and stalks us; death is omnipresent and all powerful. For a while, after we realize that something’s slowly eating away our life, that we’re all standing on an hourglass and we’re going to run out of time, death is the only thing we really own in this world.

It took me a month or so to come to terms with it. Because this is what always happens. Even if it may not be our first tragedy, it’s the one we always get over. We always regain hope.

Like the Romans used to say, “Memento mori.” Remember that you are mortal, merely a man, and what inexorably binds all of us together is the fact that we are going to die.

On the twenty third of September 1997, I went to the cemetery for the last time. I lit candles for each and every one of those poor souls that had died for no particular reason at all. That was their tragedy. Their death had meant nothing. They hadn’t been heroes or martyrs. They hadn’t been saints or sinners or villains. Their lives had been of no importance to the world and so, in death, they had been reserved the cruelest of fates, they had been casted into the most insidious of hells.

They had been forgotten.


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