(San Francisco de) Quito, built of Inca stone. They burnt the city in their flight, but couldn’t burn the hardened fire cast from Guagua—cast by men into forgotten temples of the Sun. Oh, San Francisco, what’s the meaning of your name? It’s been so used it’s like an effaced ruin in my city, washed and worn to simple stone—to simple sound. But here, in Quito, where it goes unsaid it speaks: San Francisco, these stones are a razed city raised to make your church, by men who proned themselves to rise up to your light. These halls adorned with suns all served to lead them to the Son. And why do you suppose the belly of The Company of Jesus is wrought in gold? Son, God—are they one?
It’s night now. At the center of Independence Square we stand as cameras flash upon the monument. A condor of bronze triumphs—a broken chain-link in his beak—and from him Spain, the wounded lion, slinks. But here, as in my land, the living condors are all but gone. These birds, dead-set upon monogamy, need vast, uncultivated lands in which to fly, and seldom breed. So the lot of them now slowly dies.—A German student points out a surveillance camera and asks, “What’s that?” and Cristobel replies, “Policia. Los ojos de la aguila.”—The eagle’s eyes. I think about the condor and the farmers in the fields, the lion and the eagle, and my home.
Beyond the monument is a Casa Blanca like our own. On my left is the Catedral Metropolitina. Behind me is the Palacio Municipal, and on my right a hotel for rich businessmen and diplomats, which shares a wall with the Church’s central office. And these comprise the sides of Independence Square. A square filled with palms trees and lawns, benches and winding paths. I spin around once very slowly. Sometimes it’s best not to loose one ’s self on ironies. It’s best to simply shrug and walk away.
But try as I might to abstain, by the time we reached La Ronda my mind is fraught with Spanish gold, and with the little boy I saw, playing there alone inside the dry fountain before the Church of San Francisco—ducking down out of sight, then flashing up to throw a stone at nothing and ducking down again—again, and again, and again.
La Ronda, a narrow little street, the city’s oldest, was recently reclaimed by the powers that be. For fifty years its houses were filled with pimps, ladies of the night and drugs, but now as we approach a band begins to play—una banda de policia. I first think: contradiction—trite, commercial, cultural display…and yet—. The music is a march of victory, but quainter—a bit mestizo. It’s a proud Andean jaunt! A crowd of women dancers dances toward us in a ring around a man dressed as a holy man. One gestures at me and I try to dance— fail rigidly—and all the while my eyes are fixed upon this man. He’s wearing two masks—one in front, and one in back. And I am thinking: Janus. It’s a January night. This is no accident I’m here and thinking Janus now. I chose this time: a door.
Some Ecuadorians say the reason the Shaman wears two masks is this—that though he must perform the sacred dance—though he must turn—to turn his face away from the Sun is an offense. But looking out my window as we climb into the hills of this vast city, I think about how earth itself has turned away from the sun. The sky is dark and flat, and Rucu Pichincha, old man mountain, sleeps. I look out my window as we thread slowly up the serpentine ways, and the city recedes before my eyes in a tapestry of lights, rising and falling in sweeping sheerness which in places makes the sloping lights seem impossible—as if nothing but ethereal lace could thread lights along such steep places. And this not simply in a valley, but a valley that rolls and crests and falls away till the lights all meld in the mist of distance that glowingly rides over the furthest horizon, miles and miles away. And when I think of all the people, it so exceeds my attempt it seems the world is here receding past the limit of my sight. The world seems spun. The sky is cold and dark as uninhabited land. And the earth is so strewn with stars it’s like looking out on a galaxy.
And these are more than stars: An old woman sells grilled bananas with melted cheese from a little makeshift stand. And here’s a mural on a slightly sloping wall, by one with a gift for painting like a child: A mural of Guagua Pichincha, young woman of the mountain, breasts bare. And the city lies beneath her wide-spread arms. Spiraling up this round mountain we climb. The Spanish—their eyes cloyed with sights of Barcelona and Madrid—called it panecillo: bread roll. It has that shape I guess, but the name is too quotidian for this place.
Today atop this mount there is an image that attempts to span all time. The virgin towers thirty meters high. Beneath her feet the vanquished serpent writhes; her wings spread wide over the lot of us; her aspect’s mild, her pose relaxed; her right hand calmly blesses all, and in her left she holds the broken chain of sin and death. I stand beneath her for a time, transfixed by my own sinful, faithless allotment of grace. Then vaguely I hear Cristobel say, “And in colonial times, this cistern at her feet caught rainwater that flowed down underground and filled the fountain at the church of San Francisco … But now it’s out of use.”
I gaze into her loving eyes. Twelve stars of the apostles sit upon her diadem. I think of old men’s dreams, and wonder if they dream her. Oh, San Francisco de Quito, de Assisi—can’t you see? The blue mist drifts behind her chiseled head.
Oh, Guagua Pichincha—Mother, Milk, and Child that is this land. I stand at the bare beginning and ask you, what does your name mean? Those who think they stand in light stumble savagely through darkness. And I, the little boy, the condor, the seer—I won’t follow dead or dying idols anymore. The world is turning away from its old light. It’s always turning! And turning away from it all I ask you, what does your name mean? It pains me that I’ve shunned your love and wisdom. What does your name mean?