Open 2020, Short Stories - Dr. Henri Colt


A Death in Quito

By Dr. Henri Colt 


Elisa and I meandered between churches on the cobbled streets of the sleepy Ecuadorian capital. She described her work with Bolivian immigrants in Argentina, while I complained about logistics in Venezuela. Exhausted and breathless, we also spoke of times when Spanish conquistadors oppressed indigenous peoples throughout Latin America. Now, we were in Quito to help with sanitation planning in the poverty-stricken slums called barrios illegales on the outskirts of the city.


Neither of us had adjusted to the altitude yet. A wearisome uphill jaunt took us past sun-dried brick and stucco-covered houses built in the old Moorish style. Elaborately-carved wooden doors opened on to manicured central gardens dominated by eucalyptus trees whose medicinal smell reminded me of California.


Gazing up at a vast interior balcony that towered over checkerboard stone-tiled patios, I thought of our last travels together, providing shelters for flood victims near Elisa’s home in Santiago, and medicine to community clinics in Brazil.


She was a friend, but our relationship was guarded. We had even slept together once, perhaps as an experiment, the way friends have sex to test the waters, but nothing more.


After reaching a restaurant perched high above the city and far from the traditional tourist track, we feasted on Chilean Cabernet and Seco de chivo, a goat stew served with yellow rice and fried plantains. The elderly owner, himself an Aymara Native Bolivian from the region around Lake Titicaca, colored our imaginations with religious tales about Antonio José de Sucre, who, under the command of Simon Bolivar, freed Quito from Spanish domination in 1822.


We began the downhill walk to our hotel shortly after midnight. A plump old woman with thick braided hair and a skirt covering her ankles staggered ahead of us down the steep incline. A brown felt hat tilted precariously off the back of her head, almost touching a bulging, dark plastic garbage bag attached to her knapsack which, almost twice her size, hung bandolier style across her stooped shoulders.


Step after halting step, she shuffled, grasping her hands together at her waist as if she could lean onto them to pull herself forward. Balancing the load on her back and panting, she paused to breathe. Her chest was almost parallel to the ground, her coarse woollen shawl dangling from her back like a blanket on a pack animal. Unexpectedly, she straightened her spine and stared not at her feet, but at the cobblestone pavement ahead as she heaved herself into the empty air in front of her in order to renew her calvary.


She lost a sandal and stumbled. Her distorted body spasmed and stretched sideways when she crumpled to the pavement. Her hat tumbled into a garbage-filled gutter. Except for a twitch of her right hand, she lay motionless under a street lamp where a sign indicated the altitude, 3333 meters. A crowd rushed toward her from a nearby food stall.


We were less than a hundred feet from where she fell, but I could tell she had stopped breathing. An old man crouched beside her. His dark fedora, blue poncho, and white cotton pants suggested he was from Otavalo, an Andean village in the northern highlands. His long gray ponytail swooped past his shoulders as he lifted the woman’s head onto his palms. A glowing cigarette dangled from his partially closed lips the same way the woman’s tongue hung lifelessly from the corner of her weather-beaten face.


Her saliva drooled onto the pavement. A trickle of blood oozed from her ear. Her shawl had fallen aside, uncovering a multi-colored shigra bag made of agave fibres. A sudden gust of wind scattered a cluster of coca leaves from a tear in the woman’s garbage bag. They littered the street, alongside excrement from passing dogs that stopped to defecate on the curb nearby.


“Malditos perros!” The old man’s shout scattered the strays. A tall, obviously foreign woman pounded her cell phone, probably calling for help.


Elisa and I continued our walk. We did not stop, but I shortened my steps.


“We should have done something,” I said.


She hesitated. “Her destiny was to die in the street, my friend. There was nothing we could do.”


"I cannot believe you just said that!"


Elisa shrugged. "What you believe or do not believe is of no matter. What is important is how you live, not where you die."


“You are tough,” I said. I couldn’t help thinking about why the woman carried coca leaves in a garbage bag. Where had she come from? With a stranger’s curiosity, I looked back up the hill.


“She is with God now,” Elisa whispered.


“That’s interesting, coming from a nonbeliever like you.”


“Such words are the only consolation for those who die.”


I paused to look at her. “But you don’t believe in God. Are you saying you would change your mind if you needed Him?”


Elisa avoided my glance and stepped cautiously over some dimly lit cobblestones. “I am saying, and we talked about this earlier today when we visited the Jesuit monastery in old Quito...”


“La Compania,” I interjected.


“Yes,” she said, without even a glimpse at the old woman or me. “God is a necessary fabrication—a universal truth that is real for almost all of us.”


“But it is dishonest to presume God’s existence only when it is convenient.”


“Dishonest, yes. But harmless.”


We reached a small terraced ledge protected by a waist-high wall of bricks. Nearby, a dizzyingly steep wooden staircase was fixed into the hillside. I stared out over a sleeping city, whose electric lights now brightened only the neoclassical dome of La Catédral, a sixteenth-century Catholic Church built with rocks carried by slave-labourers from the nearby volcano Mount Pichincha. Elisa leaned on an iron handrail.


“I never told you,” she murmured, “that along with my youth, my dreams, and my only lover, I lost God in the torture cell of a Chilean prison years ago.”

She grabbed my elbow with one hand and placed her other on my wrist. There was tragedy in her eyes, but her body felt like a feather on my arm as if the heaviness of her revelation had miraculously been lifted from her shoulders. Her forward motion insisted we resume our descent.


"I am not sure that you lost God," I ventured.

She sighed. “You are still thinking about that woman, aren’t you?”


I nodded with some embarrassment.


Elisa let go of my arm and nudged me in the direction of the stairway. “So,” she said, “with or without God, she did not die alone.”


Dr. Henri Colt, Professor Emeritus of the University of California, Irvine, is a physician leader, writer, award winning medical educator, and ethicist with interests ranging from interventional pulmonology to lung cancer, ethics, grief, cinema, and the applications of film, art and aesthetics in medical education. His numerous publications include more than 150 original research papers, as well as numerous training manuals. He is the editor of Picture of Health: Medical Ethics and the Movies (Oxford University Press). His short stories have appeared in Rock and Ice Magazine, Fiction on the Web, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Fewer than 500.


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