I started in darkness on a morning in late July, tossing my gear up to a cluster of dark figures in the back of a truck and then scrambling aboard to squeeze among them. Soon the old engine began to rumble, and we left the town behind. There was no room to sit, so I stood, shivering beneath a coat and blanket, and clutched a rope running down the middle of the truck's bed in order not to fall. I peered through the gloom but could not see who was making this journey with me.
Night lifted. In the Andean valleys that stretched on and on around us, the mist lay like a lake of white gauze. Now and then a solitary form, a peasant huddled in shawls and a peaked woolen cap, waded across the smoky lake. Its vast-ness mocked him, but he didn't seem to know.
At last it grew light enough to see my Indian companions: wool-capped babies, eyes closed, suckling their mothers; children contorted in positions not human, trying to sleep; teenagers shoving wads of coca leaves into their cheeks, sucking the juices to deaden the bite of winter; men with caps tugged low, cheekbones high, eyes narrowed, staring far ahead; women with the impassive faces Andean women wear—dark, stoic full moons rimmed by black bowler hats and two long braids running down their backs. The women sat upon sacks of grain and onions they would sell to the Indians coming down from their isolation in the hills to beat the hell out of each other.
The land lost its smoothness and began to convulse. Here and there we passed small adobe huts with bulls' horns protruding from the tops of thatched roofs to chase the evil spirits. Near the road, families stared blankly at us. The truck stopped, and an Indian hawked long spikes of sugarcane for the passengers to crack open and gnaw. No, this could not be: Now more sacks of food were being pitched over the truck's wooden siding, more round Indian women wrapped in five tiers of skirts were climbing in. The truck began to roll again. No room remained on the truckbed for both of my feet; I lifted one and felt the other begin to ache. "�Cuidado!" ("Care!") someone shouted too late. I ducked, but the thorn-covered tree branch had already strafed me, clawing two welts on my neck.
An hour passed. The chill and mist of dawn were gone, chased off by an angry sun. We corkscrewed up a thin dirt mountain road, peeling sweaters and shirts, eating dust. With his hands, a man near the edge signaled how many inches separated the truck's wheels from a half-mile fall. I drew in my breath. You made your decision, I told myself. Whatever happens, happens.
Instead of looking down, I gazed straight up at the ribbon of road above. Staring down at us over the edge, outlined by an impossibly blue sky, was a pair of figures, motionless. I stared back at them, disturbed. "�Hombres?" I asked, not wanting to point.
"No, scarecrow. One man, one scarecrow."
I looked up again at the two figures. Everyone fell silent. It was something more in the attitude of their bodies than in their stillness: Which was stuffed with blood and muscle, which with straw? The truck crept along the road, the roar of its motor the only sound. Which of us three, I wondered, would be the first to break the trance?