31 Oct The Procession of the Dead
The Procession of the Dead
(from Ecuadorian Ghost Stories, edited by Mario Conde, translated by Christopher Minster)
Back in the old days, Quito was a small urban settlement that extended from La Magdalena in the south to what is now known as Colon Avenue in the north. In spite of the small size, the National Police (which was then known as the Carabineros Corps) was hard-pressed to patrol all of the sectors of the city, in particular the area of the small plaza of Carmen Bajo, in front of the San Juan de Dios hospital. People used to say that the place was sort of creepy and spooky because of all of the people who had died in the hospital. When any of the carabineros were assigned to the area, they would always cross themselves at the start of their shift because they knew they were in for a long, terrible night, fearful that they might come across a ghost or some other sort of apparition from the other side.
Julio Benítez and Aníbal Parra were two young carabineros. One night, it was their turn to guard the small plaza in front of the hospital, between García Moreno and Rocafuerte streets. It was very dark, and an icy wind was blowing. The young men were shaking from cold, and they spoke with each other to keep their spirits up. They were trying not to think about the stories of apparitions and ghosts that, according to local lore, wandered around the area. Back then, there were no streetlights, and the area was fogged in darkness. The howling of dogs seemed to announce that something very bad was about to happen.
When the bells of the San Francisco cathedral rang eleven o’clock, the two young men went out on patrol. They walked along García Moreno Street toward May 24 Avenue. Back then, there was a ravine near there known as Jerusalem, and there was a little trail that ran alongside it which went up to the Robo chapel, San Roque, and the San Diego cemetery. When the young carabineros got to the ravine and made their way to Venezuela Street, they stopped when they saw that there were lights to the south of the chapel, as if someone was coming from the cemetery.
The carabineros thought the lights must be thieves, so they hid to see if they could catch them. The lights were still far away, but they could see that they were coming their way. They gripped their nightsticks. But suddenly their bravery dissipated when they heard a mournful, eerie sound like the beating of a drum: tararan tan tan, tararan, tan, tan. They could hear the drumming in the still of the night, and it was soon joined by a high-pitched whistling, like a flute, as if in accompaniment. The young men peered into the night with confusion and apprehension. Either they were dreaming or the lights were part of a procession of beings from the other side, coming from the cemetery.
The policemen hid more deeply in their hiding spot, barely daring to move a muscle. After a while they saw something at the back of the line of shadows that looked like a funeral procession. It was a carriage, rolling along surrounded by flames! When the drumming noise was no more than a block away, and in the light of that horrible fire, the terrified young men could finally see the whole procession. In the front were two specters dressed in red. One was beating a cylindrical box like a drum, and the other carried a small flute, with which he accompanied the macabre drumbeat.
Behind them, there were two lines of ghosts wearing black hoods. In their skeletal hands they held long white candles, which were topped with weak, dim flames. At the end of the procession was the carriage wrapped in flames, driven by a creature with a black face, two curling horns like those of a ram and a red cloak that covered his body. It was the devil himself, bringing up the rear of the ghostly funeral procession.
The two young carabineros were paralyzed with horror. They could barely breathe, and their hearts were pounding in their chests. They were hoping that the funeral procession would turn up García Moreno Street a block away and head toward San Juan de Dios. But the madness of fear gripped them when they saw that the funeral procession was headed directly toward them. When the specters were only a few steps away from them, carabinero Porra, who was the more fearful of the two, took off out of the hiding spot, screaming at the top of his lungs and running as if the devil himself were on his tail. Julio Benítez was right behind him, matching him step for step. They didn’t stop until they had reached their guard post, two blocks away.
The policemen shut themselves inside their little guard shack, trembling and unable to speak. Just when they figured that they had avoided the procession, they heard a familiar noise that sent shivers up their spines: tararan tan tan, tararan tan tan… It was coming up Rocafuerte Street as if it had come around behind them. Terrified, their hair standing on end, they hunched down inside the little guard house, looking out through the cracks in the walls. An oppressive darkness covered the city and the barking of the dogs made the drumming even more sinister. Suddenly, the flames of the infernal carriage illuminated the street and the procession passed right in front of them. With diabolical fury, spectral hands banged on the door to the little shack.
The young men crossed themselves and prayed with passion. Suddenly, they sensed something sinister moving behind them. They turned to see and there, inside the little shack and right behind them, were two of the macabre ghosts holding their long candles. Insane with terror, the carabineros flung themselves on the ghosts, swinging with their nightsticks, but the blows went right through the dark shadows. In a moment, the two friends fainted from fear, their eyes unfocused and foam coming from their mouths.
They never knew what happened next. Julio Benítez awoke around five in the morning, as the horizon began to brighten. He suddenly remembered everything that had happened the night before, as if it had been a nightmare. He was sprawled out on the floor of the shack, however, which seemed to prove that what had happened was real.
His companion was on the floor beside him, so Julio woke him, too. The two of them looked at each other without speaking. Finally, one of them moved and instinctively looked for his nightstick. He did not find it, but instead found a long, white object; it looked like one of the candles the specters had been carrying. Curiously, he picked it up but in an instant, he let it go with a scream: what had looked like a candle was actually a dead man’s leg bone.
Today, the City Museum is in the old building that used to be the San Juan de Dios hospital. Many visitors and guards claim to see apparitions wandering around in the rooms and hallways, and at night, some still claim to hear the sinister beat of a drum: tararan tan tan, tararan tan tan… They say that it is the procession of the dead, coming for the lost souls wandering the old hallways, coming to take them to hell.