Enrique Pallares H.
After the earthquake of Ambato on August 5th of 1949, a group of municipal workers found the body of father Lazaro of Santofimia mummified on a windowsill of the ruined church of Guano: a handkerchief tied around the monk’s head, a silk sheet wrapped around his ancient legs and a petrified mouse coiled between his feet. Father Lazaro of Santofimia, Franciscan monk and the first guardian of the church of Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion de Guano, arrived to the Ecuadorian village in 1560 to instruct the already conquered Incas and the growing mestizo population on religion, the arts, crafts, and civilization. The monk and the mouse had been arrested by the sudden earthquake and eruption of Tungurahua, a rather profuse and powerful volcano that sits like a moody giant in the Ecuadorian province of Tungurahua.
Its lava is very liquid. It flies far with the initial explosion of an eruption, boiling Technicolor Red liquid, and downpours from the deep mouth of Tungurahua through the crevices of the plateau filling rivers and canyons like bloodstreams and covering valleys with its hemorrhage. The towns of Baños, Guano and Riobamba have proved to be the most affected, Bañosbeing obliterated several times by the burning tongue strokes, shaken by its earthquakes and flooded by its mudslides. This little town hangs as if trapped on a giant spider web on the nose of a cliff. At the bottom of the cliff one can find a green valley of very fertile land, where the stubborn generations huddle to enjoy the microclimatic Eden in-between cataclysms.This though is not the setting of our story, neither is the redundant Baños, town of waterfalls and Indians makingmelcocha. Our setting is a similar valley and the parsimonious village of Guano, land of cholas, not only for thederogatory term to define promiscuous Indian women, but for the pastry named after these local muses, crumbled dough bread filled with molasses marmalade, and home to the mummy of father Lazaro and the mouse.
Father Lazaro was a man of broad cheekbones and even broader cheeks. His appearance equivocally reflected a comic, awkward personality of Quixotic attributes, more than the intellectual, somber character that actually ruled him. Not to say the man could not take a joke or surrender to true tenderness, but his over-education had made him too self aware, too aware for that matter; and the peace that he sought in nature he found, yet not the humor. He could rather be described as acute and kind, once frugal. He was Spanish from Spanish family, all born in Spain under the consent of the king and casted to the Americas. At a young age he traveled to study theology in Rome and during those years did a few rounds as a young spiritual man through the old continent. During this time was when his fancy for austerity begun, hence a vocation for education and charity. And so when he finished the seminar and the opportunity presented itself, he jumped at it and, with his Franciscan belongings, embarked on a caravel bound to the new continent, which by this time was conquered and craved for kindness, education and evangelization.
He learned to love simplicity. Yet in the last years of his life he grew bitter: “For over twenty years I have lived a life of arduous service and consequential satisfaction. I have built schools, taught Spanish, taught painting and literature, taught respect, taught God. I have made craftsmen and tradesmen out of savages, heart out of tripe… I have taught parents to not burn their children’s hands just so the child would learn the danger of fire. I have taught them the value of currency and barter, and even attempted to instruct them on the benefits of often cleaning. I’m sick of these bucolics,” he wrote one night sitting on his wooden desk, confined by white, chipped walls, which looked like a map of an ocean full of islands. He wondered if any caravels would soon venture farther and find more gold and more savages to educate, his eyes shrunk taut at the edges and he pressed hard on his feather pen. As he wrote, a mouse crossed the rosewood floor, so quickly that his eye could barely notice it, the floor so old and feeble that it squeaked even with the miserable weight of the stealthy steps. “I’m sick of these bucolics,” he wrote from his room that hung above the church domes and below the night and the bells thathe tolled at dawn, “these bucolics and their bucolic walls and their bucolic mice… Everything so bucolic that it spills,after so many years, even on myself.” He covered his inkwell and walked over to his bed, stepping over the cold wooden floor with his bare feet, hearing not only his aging steps, but every single enormous step of the tiny mouse. Every time he turned the mouse was gone, hiding behind some wooden leg, hiding in the gloomy corners of the candlelight, taunting him from the shadows. As soon as he resumed his step the mouse would again cross the room quicker than a bullet and make him turn with hesitating balance as if looking for some non-existent ghost, spilling the boiling wax on his fingers and making him gruntwith burning frustration. He blew the candle and sat on his bed. He was dizzy. He looked up at the small window and saw the moon, framed as if a painting on his wall. “Traitor,” he murmured and turned his back on it, to lay and coil his body in the cold sheets.
Next morning he awoke late. He hadn’t gotten up to toll the morning bells, but he knew no one would really mind, perhaps no one would even notice. Father Lazaro of Santofimia, first guardian of the church of Guano, descended through the ever-crepuscular spiral stairs that reeked of mold. He heard screaming outside the mighty doors of the church. He opened the little side door and peeked out, to find half of the town gathered in the square, women clinging to men in bright ponchos and children hanging on to big legs as lianas, all talking loudly and pointing up and across the valley to a mushroom of gray smoke emerging from the tip of the volcano.
“Father Lazaro, for the love of God…” screamed Mrs. Sigcha, a devote mestiza, “help us father!” she hung from the priest’s arm as if from a big crucifix, trusting that him, whether it be with his faith or intellectual artifice would protect the people from any danger. Father Lazaro hurried back into the church and called his sacristan. He wrote an extensive letter to the authorities in Riobamba reporting the behavior of the great Tungurahua volcano and sent it immediately with the chagraof the fastest horse, but the chagra returned the same day with a message from Riobamba insuring that there was nothing to fear when one is under the grace of God. In fact a legion of scientists from Spain and the Archbishop himself were to passthrough the village in only a few months and they expected him to fix them a comfortable stay in the beautiful Guano. The scientists where extremely interested in the microclimates of this particular area and in the progress of Indians in the region.
Father Lazaro climbed up the spiral stairs: dark and stale as always… He called up his sacristan, and heard the echo of his own voice flying down the dark and moldy stairs and into the enormous church, floating above the empty benches and missals, bouncing from wall to wall and on bright images of saints stained on high windows and up to the altar, surrounding the stillpyx and chalice and breaching the door behind the giant wooden cross. Then he heard the reply of the short steps of the sacristan quickening through the church and climbing up the serpentine stairs.
“Yes father Lazaro?” panted the broad faced, ageless Indian as he appeared from behind the door, flushing in all his constant sour scent through the still air of the room.
“Are you afraid of the volcano, father?” asked the sexton scratching his leg.
“No, I have decided to move my things downstairs,” said the priest as he piled his Greek and Latin books next to the bed, “I am getting to old to climb up these stairs, it is too much, too much…”
The sacristan nodded and begun to move things awkwardly close to the door, “has the mouse been bothering you again father?” taunted the little Indian with a slight grin.
“It’s dominating my nights sacristan. I can’t take it anymore…” sighed the aging priest.
The sacristan let out a little giggle of mockery. Father Lazaro raised his brow over his shoulder and pressed his lips hardas the sacristanpenguined out the door with a wooden chest in his hands.
“Should I bring down the desk?” asked the sacristan returning too quickly.
“No, no, no, that is too heavy. Ill just write on the one downstairs.”
They carried everything else down to the room behind the altar. Father Lazaro helped only with the small delicate things that the sexton would surely break if he touched: the cross above his bed that San Pedro of Alcantara gave him in Madrid, thevirgin of Quito stepping on the snake made by an Indian sculptor of the Escuela Quiteña, and the less holly and very pastoral porcelain figurines that he bought in his trip to Paris as a young man.
“Here! The last of your things,” said the sexton out of breath, wiping his dark shiny forehead with the loose sleeve of his brown robe, “I hope the mouse doesn’t follow you down here father.”
Sitting on his new desk the priest sighed over his overlapped hands and nodded vexed, “thank you, sacristan, thank you, you can go now.” He begun to arrange his books, “Oh, sacristan, I almost forgot… Tell Saul I will stop by to see him this afternoon. I need the locks of some of my trunks fixed.”
The sexton nodded with a childish smile and walked out quietly laughing at the priest. So much had changed since fatherLazaro of Santofimia arrived. People were instructed in different trades and once a week a caravan would go up the hill, across the Abras plateau, get to Riobamba, and exchange many goods from Guano in the open market. They would sell cholas, treated leather, assorted textile fibers and cabuya. Many times they would get their hands on new tools and large tinplates. The lechero did not miss a beat these days and the hojalatero implemented the use of a furnace and a torch, which amazed even the priest.
Father Lazaro walked on the edge of the river, past the chozas and the newer white little houses that overlooked the valley with parcels of crops of all hues of brown, red and green as if a large patched blanket sown as a skirt of the volcano. Tungurahua sat quiet; so suspiciously quiet that it gave the impression that it was about to explode, to blow up, or to begin running or something of the sort. It looked like the stillness that floats during the intermission of a play, so quiet, yet with the anticipation of so much movement, so dead, yet with the inevitable suggestion of imminent life. He wondered what was it that made him so tired, so claustrophobic about Guano recently. He had lived there in peace for twentyyears, but it was all gone. He hated everything. The place that once upon a time had given him the tranquility and ease that he needed to write his liberation poetry, was now the source of his suffering, of his loss of faith and hope, which was funneling him into a bitter old man, he knew this clearly. He saw three children splashing water in the clearing of the river. He looked down and extended his slowly withering palms. “The source of my grace and my misery,” he said softly to himself.
He had been reading a new book of poetry that the Archbishop sent him by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, and the thought of that liberation lightened him. He took a deep breath and let the sharp air of the Andes enter his lungs deeply. He began to feel better. “That terrible mouse”, he thought immediately and his grace diminished again. “All I need is some silence and that mouse…” he started to walk back home as the sun fell behind the mountains quickly. He walked thriftily, careful to not spend too much of himself, or to make deep marks on the dirt with his rope-soled shoes. He stopped in Saul’s house and knocked.
“Hello father,” exclaimed the coarse-handed Indian, “come in, I have a canelazo for you.”
“Thank you,” said the priest sitting down on a chair very cautiously.
He sat refraining to put all his weight on the wooden chair, trying to not leave a big mark on anything; his movements were all contrived, as if he tried to not disturb the still air… He had already made a mark indelible enough on all those people, in the entire region. He felt neither good nor bad about it, or maybe he felt both, for he had seen their original arbitrary innocence vanish from them. They were not the childish creatures that he had encountered in the valley on an August afternoon so many years before. He was not sure of anything anymore. He had grown so distant from the intrinsic nature of the place that an insignificant mouse roaming his room was enough to keep him up all night hearing devils whispering, haunting him, dominating him under the distant vigil of the rondador that made his night rounds calling out the time sporadically and playing the melancholic tunes of his flauta the pan de los Andes.
Maria, Sauls wife, appeared from behind a hanging cloth bringing three clay cups and a steaming jar of canelazo. The whole house smelled of sweat, rancid milk, smoke and cinnamon. They all drank a few shots and Saul asked about the visit of the Archbishop and the legion of Spanish scientists.
“News move very quickly,” said the priest to the welder, “But listen Saul, I’ve come because I need you to fix the locks ofsome of my trunks.”
“Are you going anywhere father?” asked Saul as he told Maria to reach for the jar and refill the cups.
“I hope so,” sighed the priest.
“No, nothing, you don’t have to worry. I just need them fixed,” the priest took a shot and decided it to be the last one as a slight feverish veil tainted his sight of Maria, “Come by the church tomorrow Saul.”
Saul agreed. They talked about some fixings that the church needed and about the harvest coming up. Saul took two more drinks rapidly and asked Maria to go prepare some more canelazo for him and the priest. His speech was already getting vulgar, and an excess of saliva gathered in the corners of his mouth.
“Oh, no Saul. I must go back now.”
“No, no, father… Stay for another little drink, one more,” the drunken welder begged.
“I’ll see you tomorrow Saul,” said the priest with a slight smile of paternalism and annoyance.
“Let the father go,” interrupted Maria, “he is very busy.”
“You shut up!” said Saul to his wife, “you shut up.”
Maria responded something in Quechua. Saul screamed back and turned. Maria shrugged her shoulders. Saul took two quick steps towards her and slapped her with his cracked welding hands across the face. She fell on the dirt floor and he jumped on her and started landing punches on her head and face. She covered herself with her arms and futile screams. Father Lazaro jumped on Saul, pulled him back with all his fading strength and held him to the wall by the neck. Then he turned to see if Maria was all right, but found that she was standing, waving a big blunt broomstick in the air.
“What are you doing, Maria?” asked the priest.
“Let him go, don’t hurt him,” she replied with a few tears falling down her rosy Andean cheeks and a bloody nose.
“But, he was beating you...” said the priest puzzled as he felt the neck of Saul palpitating against his tight palm, not fighting.
“He is husband, he has right,” she said firm and frightened.
The priest felt his frown faint, his questions vanish, his reason flicker and his hope sink. He let Saul go and he held his forehead. He was so confused that he got dizzy.
“I better go. Saul, don’t be hitting your wife like that,” he said as the drunken welder apologized to him continuously. Father Lazaro rushed out the door and into the night. He looked to his right and saw a full moon hanging low, “Traitor,” he said and turned left. He walked to the song of the crickets and saw the white church shining at the end of the dirt road. Something else shone on his eye from the ground. He knelt and picked up a big, flat obsidian, black and shiny like a mirror in the night. He saw the moon reflected on it, “Traitor,” he said again. He got up and continued to the church, to his room, to his mind, to his mouse.
He sat on his desk to write beneath the candlelight, only to find that he had left his notebook upstairs. He grunted and cursed. Then he blew the candles and fell on his bed. He looked up into the dark, empty ceiling and mumbled his prayers, but his attention drifted to the little steps as tiny scratches on the wooden floor. “It can’t be…” he said to the dark room. The mouse ran and stopped, ran and stopped, always stealthy, faster than his eyes dumb to darkness, sharper than his instincts. It was as if the mouse was playing with him now, circling the bed, surrounding him. He tried to keep on praying but it seemedas if the steps were multiplying, as if it was a battalion of mice that were about to climb up the bed and seize him. He was sweating cold, heavy drops. He could not stand a mouse rule him like that, throwing him into delusion, but the shadowsallowed the demons to lurk in the dark, and everything seemed possible at night under the tremulous light of the moon. He prayed and the mouse ran until the priest, exhausted, finally fell asleep right as the rondador walked passed his windowsinging: “three in the morning, blessed be Jesus Christ and all the town of Guano,” then he played a little tune in his flute.
He awoke from a light sleep at the break of dawn, as the rondador went to bed and the cocks begun to sing. He stepped on the gelid floor and threw his heavy cloak on him. He slid his crooked toes into his alpaca wool sandals, got up, and walked up the serpentine stairs to his old room. He climbed all the way to the top and tolled the bells lazily, with bad tempo, and saw a few children already out in the main square chasing some chickens. He walked one flight down and saw his room so lifeless without him, so quiet without the mouse. Nothing had ever seemed so empty…
He rushed over to his old desk, opened the first drawer and took out his leather notebook with the cathedral of Cuenca engraved on its cover. He walked around the room on the squeaking floor and looked out the window. The moon wasn’t there, “Traitor,” he murmured and took another step. He looked out again and saw the majestic volcano. It looked even more imminentthan ever. Then he felt the ground tremble. He heard a loud roar from within the underground and saw the explosion on top of the volcano, and a giant mushroom of smoke growing and spreading through the diaphanous morning sky. Then he heard another explosion that resounded through his spine. “Traitor,” he said again and begun to run. He passed the door of the old room, hurried down the dark and damp spiral stairs as if drilling into the ground. He ran to his room and picked up the cross from over his bed. He turned to run out but the fall of a big pillar by the door hindered him. He rushed and climbed on the tightwindowsill. He grabbed on to the iron bars of the window with one hand and to the cross with the other. People were screamingoutside and children were crying. He saw the mouse climb from under his bed and up to the sill. The mouse got on his two small hind legs and approached his nose to the windowpane as if sniffing for an escape route. Father Lazaro didn’t move. He thought of trying to break the glass so the mouse could escape. He looked at the tiny rodent and clasped his tongue in his dry mouth trying to swallow some saliva through his terrified throat. The mouse coiled between the father’s feet. The priest closed his eyes and threw his head back. There was absolute silence and a beautiful stillness softened the air. Then the strongest earthquake that Guano ever saw shook the earth, crumbling Ambato, Riobamba, Baños, Indians, Mestizos, Spaniards,husabands, wifes, children, schools, churches, welders, rondadores, chagras, sacristans, priests and mice.
According to scientists, the trapped bodies of the priest and the mouse were mummified due to climatic reasons. Legends say that his body was preserved because he was a saint, which leads me not only to believe it zealously, but to think that probably so was the mouse; for science, contrary to legends, has proved to have irrefutable flaws.
 South American candy, elastic lines of caramel recoiled and beaten against wooden doors to achieve a rubbery consistency of the sugar.
 Mestizo woman. Commonly used colloquially for promiscuous Indian and mestizo women.
 A racially mixed person. In Latin America, of Indian and European ancestry.
 Ecuadorian mestizo or Indian that lives and works in the mountains, generally with great horsemanship.
 School of art organized by the Spanish in Quito between 1542 and 1824. Its artists were all native Indians and its main theme was religious art.
 South American plant fiber used to make robes and strings.
 Person in charge of milking the cows very early in the morning and delivering milk to the entire town.
 Man who performed the tasks of a welder, plumber and a variety of assorted repairs.
 Hut or cabin made of clay and straw.
 Strong alcoholic beverage made of sugarcane and cinnamon, served warm.
 Known as Rondin or Rondador, a night vigil or security that walked around towns in colonial times holding a spear, reciting the time and religious verses and playing a wooden instrument known as flauta the pan de los Andes.
 Wooden wind instrument native of the Andes, later on it would evolve into a sort of harmonica called rondin.
 Volcanic glass. Generally black, although transparent when thin. It can be very sharp, and due to the volcanic composition of the Andean land it was widely used for sharp tools and weapons before the use of metals. To this day one can find many large types of obsidian along the Ecuadorian mountains.