“Colapso, Colapso!” Alberto heard it before he saw it. The shouts of the other miners as they raced up the narrow shaft. Behind them, a plume of dust and dirt and salt and rock, tumbling forwards like an angry wave. His candle flickered angrily at the sudden change, threatening to plunge him into darkness. He turned, hurling his pickaxe away from him and ran. The earth groaned and creaked, splintering wooden beams, an ancient God awakening from a thousand year slumber.
“Ejecutar ahora!”, up ahead, the foremen in their shiny hats, already beginning to retreat, urging their men to follow with haste. Alberto did not need to be told twice, he ran, he ran faster than he had ran in his entire life. Rock and stone and salt and wood crashed behind him, dust filled his lungs, his eyes, he groped forwards, bleary-eyed in the darkness. Gradually, the ear-splitting sounds behind him began to dwindle. He turned, expecting death and finding nothing but darkness. Dust and darkness.
Dropping to his knees, Alberto pulled at his neck, his crucifix necklace, hardened palm wood from the jungles to the North, sliding into his dirt streaked hand. He clenched it tightly, imploring Jesus, his mother, his father, all the saints across all the world, to keep him safe. The final creaks in the mine ebbed to nothing, leaving Alberto alone in the darkened tunnel, his ragged breath and his many prayers the only sounds to be heard.
Fifteen. Fifteen good men, dead. Alberto was solemn, silent. His brother, Marcos, less so. “We are so lucky, my brother, if we had been further in the mine, we would be dead, but the holy mother, she watches over us, even now, can you feel her?”. Alberto could feel nothing, he felt numb, he had known many of the men who lay buried in the earth well. Now they were nothing, crushed, splintered bones and rotting meat, his friends gone forever. He felt despair, soon he would have to re-enter the mine, to screw up his courage and stride into a hole in the ground in search of salt.
“We are salt miners brother, our father was a salt miner, our sons shall be salt miners, salt is in our blood, in our very souls, this is why we were not taken, this is why God watches over us” Marcos finished his lecture, excitedly. Alberto watched him, grief still filling his heart. The cave-ins had become less and less frequent over the years and this was his brother’s first. Marcos was unsure how to act. Alberto could see his brother struggling with a poisonous cocktail of relief, regret and adrenaline.
He had bought his brother into the mines just one year ago and now here they were, sitting with mugs of warm beer, mourning in their own separate ways. The night flashed by, Alberto awoke from a dream in which he sailed across a salty sea in search of gold. He dressed with the well drilled discipline of a soldier, he shrugged on his miners jacket, his tough leather boots, pocketing his canteen. He walked to the mine, his hands in his pockets, the cold nipping at his neck. The shaft swallowed him whole. He descended into darkness, his candle lighting the way. He stopped, sitting upon a glistening rock of salt, worn smooth by the asses of many a miner swigging coffee from their metal canteens. He took out a chisel and absent-mindedly began to work on the rock beside him.
Shapes appeared to him, divine inspiration, he carved, he whittled at the rock, slowly but surely a cross began to form. A voice spoke to him, promising no more deaths, no more widows, all he had to do was work upon the salt. Soon his coffee was cold, still he worked, crouched in the darkness silently, chipping away at the hard rock to reveal the soft salt beneath. A crucifix began to blossom forth from the wall, a flower stretching towards the light. Days passed, weeks. He mined when he had to, enough to feed his family, but mostly he carved, the wall becoming a fresco, a thing to marvel at. Others stopped what they were doing, they watched. Eventually they stopped watching. They dropped their pickaxes, they crouched next to him in the gloom, chiselling together, revealing the shapes hidden within the earth.
Months passed, the frescoes constantly changing, becoming more intricate, a place for the miners to pray. Huge salten crucifixes, scenes from the life of their saviour. Alberto had become obsessed, Marcos too. Alberto worked silently, Marcos, of course, could not. “Soon, we must build a shrine further down the tunnel, there should be one every fifty meters, then the Lord God can watch over us as we go further and further into the earth”. Alberto nodded, this was his plan, he meant to protect his fellow miners, to ensure there would be no more deaths.
Time marched on, years passed, Alberto barely mined, kept on by the company for moral, he chiselled, he learnt to carve faces in the stone, angels to watch over his brethren. Pilgrims flocked from far and wide, Alberto continued to chisel. A decade passed, a priest came. The mine grew, Alberto constantly working, soon a crowd eight thousand strong could fit inside a great cathedral made of salt, nestled within the depths of the earth. Alberto had completed a marvel, a thing to rival the great pyramids to the North, the lost cities in the jungle, he had kept his part of the deal and so had God. No more miners were to die in this mine, for God, Alberto was certain, watched over them all. He watched from every nook, every cranny, he watched through the eyes of the faces carved into the tunnel roof, he kept them from harm. Alberto and Marco remained faithful, praying every day, constantly enlarging Zipaquira’s Salt Cathedral, doing the Lord’s work. It is a marvellous thing to scratch at salt and reveal a work of art, waiting to be excavated. It seemed that no matter how far they dug, how deep they chiselled, there was always more to be done, more to explore.
Note: This is a fictional piece I wrote after visiting the Salt Cathedral in Zipaquira, just outside of Bogota. The Zipaquira Salt Cathedral was built to replace the much larger original cathedral which I have described above. The original cathedral was completed in the 1950s by miners, it started out as a small series of shrines carved out of the salt along the tunnels during the 1930s but quickly grew to become a full-blown cathedral capable of housing 8000 people. I could find no information on who began making the shrines or why and so, I made it up. Names and the events described are fictional. The pictures I have used are from the second salt cathedral, in Zipaquira, as it is not currently possible to visit the original cathedral due to safety concerns.
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