No Take Away from Cuenca by Valerie Fletcher Adolph
We ate lunch in the shade of Cuenca’s cathedral then strolled around the market where local women displayed vivid flowers and crafts.
I coveted the flowers. I wanted buckets full of red, purple, orange flowers. Ridiculous! Buckets of flowers don’t fit in backpacks.
We headed down the main street where a mixture of businesses and homes opened right on to the sidewalk. We stopped at a panama hat factory to watch hats being made. At the insistence of the saleslady we tried on a few.
“How beautiful you look!” “It suits you perfectly!” “You’ll be the centre of attention in this hat!”
Well, yes, I would be the centre of attention at my grandson’s hockey rink wearing a panama hat.
Reluctantly I relinquished the opportunity of becoming beautiful. I wandered along soaking up the architecture, colours, sounds and smells of Cuenca. Suddenly an imposing carved door opened beside us. A woman dressed like a bygone European peasant hissed “You must come in.”
She was no more than four feet tall, clad in a shawl and long black dress, her wiry hair pulled into a bun.
“You must come in,” she repeated. “Madame said.”
We stood, uncertain, gob smacked. She reached out and pulled the nearest person (me) inside. To my huge relief the others followed.
We stood at the foot of a curving staircase with old-style portraits covering the walls. At the top, beckoning us, was a tall, commanding woman, dressed as an eighteenth century dowager French queen might dress.
Presumably this was Madame.
Her voice was deep and heavily-accented, “Welcome!” She gestured for us to climb the thickly carpeted staircase. As the last of our small group began the ascent the peasant woman closed the door to the street. I heard her lock it.
Madame led us into a dining room where a long table was set for twenty people. I wondered if we were to dine here. None of us could afford it.
She set our minds at rest. This was merely part of the normal furnishings. Madame reached for a switch and ornate chandeliers shone down from an intricately-ornamented ceiling to reveal exquisite china and glassware, carved chairs with immaculate velvet seats. We might have been in Versailles.
Large portraits stared disapprovingly from the walls. Moving from left to right Madame named each of the subjects, relating each grand duke, prince, admiral, black sheep and delicate countess to herself. Occasionally she hinted at salacious details or eyebrow-raising malfeasance. She named names across centuries from Medicis to tsars, from Holy Roman Emperors to Napoleon’s Josephine. All connected, she said, to her family.
Then we were led to a lounge, similarly opulent and with portraits on the walls. Had she missed any grand duke, Infanta or archbishop? More names, more titles. As our eyes glazed over Madame said, “Next I will show you my bedroom.”
Ready for the next onslaught of major and minor royalties with perhaps some titillating gossip we followed her. I was surprised to find her bedroom was no exotic boudoir but the size of a child’s room. It contained a single bed, desk, a crucifix on the wall and brown linoleum on the floor.
“I live very simply,” she said. I wondered where she hid the wardrobe that contained her elaborate gown, her long black gloves and her jewellery. Before I could ask she said “Now! For my treasures!”
Not more ancestors, please! She led us into what looked like a small classroom, full of glass cases crammed with South American artifacts. Unlike the pristine condition of other rooms everything here was covered in dust. She pointed out major pieces. Almost all were pre-Columbian, some pre-Incan.
And while I had wondered about the veracity of her connections to European royalty I believed her provenance of the South American artifacts. It was in the details, in the tone of her voice, in her look of reverence.
I wondered if we were expected to buy these but she said “These are national treasures. I cannot, I would not, sell any of them.”
Sigh of relief.
Then Madame turned to the display cases in the centre of the room, also containing artifacts.
“These,” she said, waving a dismissive hand “Are forgeries. Very good forgeries, but forgeries nonetheless. Only an expert could tell the difference.”
I thought I might perhaps afford a forgery. Most were small and would fit into my backpack. This must have been the purpose of our rather unusual hijacking.
Janie, next to me, pointed to a squat fertility goddess. “How much is she?”
Madame laughed. It wasn’t her rich European royalty laugh, it was the laugh of someone who understood forgeries.
“I can’t sell these either. They are too good. If a customs man found that in your luggage he’d think it was genuine. It’s against the law to take artifacts out of Ecuador. You would be in jail.”
We gazed for a long time at artifacts, real and forged, as Madame detailed the history and culture of each one. She gave life and dimension to Pre-Columbian culture.
Then Madame seemed to tire. She guided us to the curved staircase at the foot of which stood the peasant woman. The door was closed, keys in her hand.
Here it comes, I thought.
In broken English she explained that Madame needed to charge visitors to see around her treasures. I mentally counted the local currency I had. This could be expensive.
She named a ridiculously small amount, the equivalent of $2. It would not sustain anyone very long.
We all paid up. Did it help Madame, or did it go straight into the peasant woman’s apron pocket?
She unlocked the door and we stepped out onto the street where a noisy pre-election parade was passing.
I had nothing to show for the day - no flowers, no panama hat, no forged artifact. No take away at all.