It feels like three a.m., but maybe it’s not that late. Faint snores float room to room through the cool night air. The rain that started while I bought bread at the last open market stall still falls on the glass four floors above me. Wooden stairs creak and settle. Bedsprings disturbed by restless sleepers groan.
Without these night noises the hotel would feel overlarge. With them it feels roomy. It’s an old, roughly rectangular building rising six stories above Cuenca’s cobblestone streets and enclosing a tiled patio topped by a glass roof.
Earlier in the night I heard a couple making love. The woman’s cries echoed upward off the plaster walls, hit the ceiling, and folded back on themselves: fragile birds swirling skyward, striking thick glass, and falling broken to the cold tile.
Two years ago, vaguely drunk and sitting alone on the couch after a party. Watching late-night rain-shadows wash across a hardwood floor. Staring through leaded-glass windows at tidy gardens shining blackly under rain falling through the weak glow of a streetlight shaded by low-hanging branches.
I had allowed my life to become false. What was real was cold rain on slowly flowing glass, dark streets shining in soft focus, and an entire house — thousands of bricks stacked above and behind me — filled with thoughts and possessions from the insincere life I was living.
Across the patio and two stories below my room, a small dresser supports a large mirror. In front of the mirror, a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe stands atop a fountain ringed by tiny potted cactuses and doubly flickering votive candles.
The hotel is silent except for the gentle tapping of the rain on the roof and the water murmuring over the rocks at the Virgin’s feet. I’m unclear on what I’m doing in Ecuador. Mostly not being home, wherever that might be. I sold what I could and gave away the rest, hoping to disappear into whatever country would have me. Hoping to leave my mistakes and regrets to sink in my wake.
Not long before I left North America, drinking Guinness in a basement pub with a flagstone floor and wooden doors bolted to the river-rock walls where windows should have been, I let this slip to my Argentine friend Mario. He laughed. “If the moon was closer,” he said, “you would run there. But it wouldn’t matter. We carry our destruction inside us wherever we go.”
Legend holds that the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego on Tepeyac Hill outside Mexico City in 1531. Legend generally leaves out that for many years prior to Juan Diego’s vision, Tepeyac was the site of the shrine to Tonantzin, the Aztec goddess of the Earth, corn, and fertility.
The closest I’ve ever come to a vision: One time, after making love, instead of falling to the bed and feeling the sheets surround my collapsing form, I fell through them, through the mattress and the box spring, through the floor. The crawlspace of the ramshackle rental house was filled with stars, and for a compressed lifetime lasting a few fugitive seconds I floated in softly glowing darkness, immersed in the certainty that the problem wasn’t that I was going to die, but that I had to fail utterly before being allowed to die.
I stand in the silent hotel and contemplate the shivering Virgin. She has no words for me. No visions, no roses. Fair enough. I have no faith in her.
Cuenca’s sidewalks are dry, but the cobblestones shine in the morning light. Shopkeepers open doors and hang wares: shirts, shoes, and straw hats. Light bulbs, backpacks, and blenders. Indigenous women wearing pleated skirts, wool sweaters, and bowlers arrange baskets of produce on brightly colored blankets.
The street falls toward the river, eventually descending a set of stairs to a stone bridge. The water, high and muddy, is louder than usual.
Willow and walnut shade the grassy banks, and behind the trees, the historic district rises on stone terraces. Bougainvillea glow orange and red and yellow. On the far side of the bridge, a small plaza overflows with women selling enormous bouquets.
I cross the river and sit at the base of a stone fountain built in the center of the square. Closing my eyes, I lean back and drown myself in the perfumed sea of flowers. An unknown number of breaths later I open my eyes surrounded by glowing blossoms, by sunlight pouring down and flooding the world with warmth.
Jim Latham lives and writes in Cholula, Puebla. His stories have appeared in The Drabble, Spillwords, Better Than Starbucks, Eunoia Review, and elsewhere. He publishes free flash fiction every Wednesday at Jim’s Shorts.