In 2001, I had one of the most inspiring and engaging relationships of my life… with a man who did not exist.
Or that is, did not exist in the flesh.
One morning as I wrote in my journal, I heard his voice tell me that he had a story to tell me– that his name was Carlos and he was a Flamenco singer from the 19th century and wanted someone to hear about his tragic but redemptive life. He wanted to share a story that spoke as much about the shadows as it did about the light. I listened intently and in awe of the lyrical beauty of his tale. Months later, the early morning scribbles became the novel Cante Bardo.
In the following excerpt from the book’s afterword, I describe the process of traveling to Spain and falling under the spell of the great cantaor and his beautiful Andalucia.
Carlos tells me about the life of gypsies and the spirit and changing face of flamenco in his day. Carlos taught me of a culture and a time and of a woman he loved and a man he murdered. Carlos tells me of his grandmother who was beaten and tried in front of a gypsy court for infidelity. He tells me he was born in Jerez from a family of singers. Detail after detail crafts a world that is uniquely his, and when I read to verify the facts, most of them check out. So when Carlos Peña asks me to go to Spain, I cannot refuse. I follow him to Spain.
Traveling alone for two weeks, I feel I have a friend and private guide in Carlos Peña, who brings to me to the towns of his short life. “Look at what they have done to my beautiful city!” Carlos cries as we stand on the beach in Cádiz looking down at the rows of ticky-tack condominiums and red concession stands. I later follow him down the old narrow streets to a café with yellow shutters–all of this with a man who was invisible but who appeared to me with the vividness of the noonday sun.
“This is where Angelica and I played music.” Later I learn from a historian that, indeed, that very corner was the heart of the gypsy quarter where singers and dancers gathered decades ago.
Where do these recollections come from? Is Carlos a part of my mind? Maybe he is no more than a reservoir of images I have seen and read over the years about Spain and gypsies. Perhaps, he is the imagination at its most alive, breathing into me with the power of fantasy. Or maybe Carlos is a part of my psyche, an aspect of myself full of poetry and pain, who emerges through the metaphor of a singing gypsy. Or could Carlos Peña be an archetype, a part of the collective unconscious? Wrote Carl Jung, “Archetypes…are living psychic forces that demand to be taken seriously…” Or maybe he is the memory of who I once was.
Could it be I roamed the hills and plains of Spain one hundred years ago? Is his story actually mine? Or, is he a spirit who has come for some kind of redemption through the telling of Cante Bardo? I may never know, and the answer may be something I cannot even now imagine. But it does not matter. My task simply is to listen and to write.
One day Carlos and I are sitting in a park in Cádiz as children play among the fountains and jasmine. “I wanted to die in Cádiz, near the sea, but I died alone, in the mountains instead.”
Carlos looks out as the children chase each other across grass. “ If you ever can, will you buy me a place here, near this park, Lisa, where my soul can rest?”
“Yes, Carlos. I promise.”
I catch myself as I speak aloud to him, turning towards the jasmine, where he towers above me, his head surrounded in the halo of mid-afternoon sun. Did anyone see me talking out loud to him—or should I say to myself? Embarrassed I pull my hand over my mouth. Carlos …who are you?
And yet, although there is no answer, I plan to keep this pledge. I hope someday I can buy him an apartment where my friends and family can gather in his honor. Whether he is real or not, does not matter much; the voice with which he speaks and sings is the voice of magic, and to heed it, is to live a life that is richer, wilder, more full of spirit.
In Carlos, the real merges with the imaginary, and the past intersects the present. His words are as alive today in California as they may have been in Cádiz in 1895. I will always be grateful to Carlos Peña and his story; he sings it out like one long lament, with the haunting beauty of flamenco. Without Carlos, I would have never known of such music, of the soul of Spain, of the song which cries out in my own heart to be heard. Thank you, Carlos Peña.
Lisa Smartt is the author of the bestselling Words at the Threshold (2017 New World Library) based on the findings of her Final Words Project (finalwordsproject.org), which she established with Dr. Raymond Moody. She has authored several other books including Diet for a Broken Heart, Lessons in Lullabies, Veil, and Cante Bardo. Lisa is also a book coach and delights in being a midwife to new ideas and authors. Find out more about her book coaching here: https://lifeafterlife.com/book-coaching/