To demonstrate, our Devil flounces outside to the atrium to show us the missing stone, to the left of the half-moon staircase. Under the setting sun, crowds gather as Lucifer laments how he punished his little devils by turning them into pigeons, ordering them to stay on Plaza San Francisco to search for the soul of Cantuña.
But not just an urban legend, Cantuña was a real man – the Devil points out a door that the man made, as well as his tombstone fixed to the wall inside the peaceful patio of the San Francisco complex, now a vision of pink in the dusk, its trees smothered in dainty orange flowers.
“Close your eyes!” the Devil urges us in the middle of patio. We listen to the silence. Not silence, he points out, but the voices of the thousands of lost souls trapped within the great walls of the monastery. Spooked by the palm trees which, for the Franciscan religious order, represent the Virgin Mary, Satan makes one last bid to claim a soul, inviting us to make a deal with the Devil. Oddly, no one volunteers, so he leaves us with his phone number (666-666) and Facebook (Don Satan) and disappears into the shadows.
He puts his glasses on and comes back for a chat. The “Devil” is actually Jaime, an actor who has been reprising his diabolic role for two years. Plenty of time, then, to learn some of the darkest secrets of the monastery located in the heart of Quito’s Old Town.
He points out how cows’ internal organs were used to make statues shine and how locals know the church as the Iglesia del Diablo. He says it really is true that among the winding corridors and 12 patios of the ancient construction are a legion of lost souls; he once saw a ghostly little girl hiding behind a column, way after hours. He tells us of the mysterious disappearance of Fray Agustin, and of the Devil’s Tower where monks still fear to tread, terrified of something terrible hidden there after dozens of monks were murdered by soldiers during the Liberal era, dragged through the streets by their brown robes.
But above all, Jaime loves the peace found in the monastery, the tranquillity a world away from the urban plaza. Gazing around the patio as the last vestiges of light disappear he smiles with wonder, and sighs: “Each sunset has its own magic.”
Not the type of magic that summoned the Lord of the Underworld, mind you, just the very Quito Old Town, very Casa Gangotena kind.