In the house lived ten women, one boy and a man. The women were Tatá, who had been my grandmother's nanny and was almost a hundred years old, partially deaf and practically blind; two girls who did the cooking and cleaning - Emma and Teresa; my five sisters: Maryluz, Clara, Eva, Marta and Sol; my mother; and a nun. The boy, me, loved the man, his father, above all things. He loved him more than God. One day I had to choose between God and my dad, and I chose my dad. It was the first theological disagreement of my life and I had it with Sister Josefa, the nun who looked after Sol and me, the two youngest. If I close my eyes I can still hear her harsh, gruff voice clashing with my childish one. It was a bright morning and we were out in the sun on the patio, watching the hummingbirds doing their rounds of the flowers. Out of the blue, the Sister said to me:
'Your father is going to go to hell.'
'Why?' I asked.
'Because he doesn't go to Mass.'
'What about me?'
'You're going to go to heaven, because you pray with me every night.'
In the evenings, while she got undressed behind the folding screen with the embroidered unicorns, we said Hail Marys and the Lord's Prayer. At the end, before going to sleep, we recited the Creed: 'I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, and of all things visible and invisible ...'She took off her habit behind the screen so we wouldn't see her hair; she'd warned us that seeing a nun's hair was a mortal sin. I, who understand things well, but slowly, had spent the whole day imagining myself in heaven without my father (I was leaning out a window in paradise and I could see him down below, pleading for help as he burned in the flames of hell), and that night, when she began to recite the prayers from behind the unicorn screen, I said: 'I'm not going to pray anymore.'
'Oh, no?' she challenged me.
'No. I don't want to go to heaven anymore. I don't like heaven if my daddy's not going to be there. I'd rather go to hell with him.'
Sister Josefa leaned around the screen (it was the only time we saw her without her veil, that is, the only time we committed the mortal sin of seeing her messy, unattractive hair) and shouted: 'Hush!' Then she crossed herself.
I loved my father with a love I didn't feel again until my own children were born. When I had them I recognized it, because it is an equally intense love, although different, and in a certain sense its opposite. I felt that nothing could happen to me if I was with my father. And I feel that nothing can happen to my children if they are with me. That is, I know that I would give up my own life, without a moment's hesitation, to defend my children. And I know my father would have given his life, without a moment's hesitation, to defend me. As a child the most unbearable idea was that my father might die, and I resolved to throw myself into the River Medellín if he did. Likewise, today I fear the death of one of my children much more than my own. All this is a very primitive, ancestral thing, which one feels in the deepest depths of consciousness, in a place that precedes thought. It is something one does not think, but which simply is,without any mitigating factors; something one knows not with the head but with the guts.
I loved my father with an animal love. I liked his smell and also the memory of his smell on the bed when he was away on a trip. I would beg the maids and my mother not to change the sheets or the pillowcase. I liked his voice, I liked his hands, his immaculate clothes and the meticulous cleanliness of his body. I felt for my father the same way my friends said they felt about their mothers. When I was afraid during the night, I would go to his bed and he would always make space for me at his side to lie down. He never said no to me. My mother protested - she said he was spoiling me - but my father moved over to the edge of the mattress and let me stay. I inhaled my father's scent, put my arm around him, stuck my thumb in my mouth, and slept soundly until the sound of horses' hoofs and the jangling of the milk cart announced the dawn.
Copyright © 2006 by Héctor Abad Translation copyright © 2010 by Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey