Feb 272010

by Linda Woolven

The air was icy cold as Menu pushed herself out of the bed that she shared with her husband and struggled to pull on her six layers of skirts.  It was early morning and dark, so she couldn’t tell which coloured skirt she layered over which, only that when on, she felt full figured: a true Inca descendant of her people.

Her husband still softly snored in their bed, the three heavy alpaca blankets forming tightly over him.  She glanced at him for only a moment, watching the gentle curve of his high cheekbones, aching to be back in that warm cocoon with him, but she had work to do.

She had stayed up well into the night, long after the candle had sputtered out, finishing the loomed pattern on the belt that she had made.  She had made it well, despite the fact that when she looked at it, and the pile of the other finished belts all discarded in one corner of the room, she could not help feeling a slight stab at her heart.  It was no better and no worse than any of the others, only a different colour, and that white woman had said she wanted this belt because of the colour.  Something about, “It would look nice on her wall and would match her living room.”  A belt was not meant for the wall among her people: it spoke of who a man was, who his wife was, who his relations were, and even where and when he lived.  It was not a sterile thing to be placed on an unyielding wall.  But then she should have been used to that.

Did her people not sell a little more of themselves each day as the tourists gave a coin for their photo, even expecting a smile?  Her people knew how to smile.  But when the teeth were exposed fully, it meant something entirely different to them.

She grabbed her hand woven blanket, lifted her child, Abotok, from where he slept in his bed, and placed him in the blanket as she strung it across her back.  She also stuffed another pack into her load, full of other belts to be sold, sweaters for sale, and food for the day.

Then she shouldered her burden and left her red adobe hut.

There was still no light.

Menu walked heavily to the stop, waiting patiently in the cold mountain wind, until she heard the familiar creak of the approaching collectivo.  She still couldn’t see it yet in the dark and its lights weren’t on: it was only a bus that locals used, and she knew that each villager from all the villages around not only knew its schedule, but would be sure to get to his stop early each day.  It was the only bus around, the only way into Cuzco, where the tourists were, where the money was, and her people needed to eat to live.

Not long ago they did not use the dirty coins and foul-smelling paper that the white men had brought: it was not needed.  If you wanted food, you grew it on the land in the mountains, terracing every plot for extra space; if you wanted clothes, you made them from the wool from the alpaca who roamed wild on their common terraces.  Now the land was owned, but not by her people, and the alpacas wandered to where there was food.  Her people had little food.

The bus came to a stop and Menu climbed into the sleepy heavy air.  There were lots of women and men making their way into the cobbled streets of Cuzco, their ancestor’s great home.

A few women looked at her, recognition in their eyes, their children shifting heavily on their backs.  One or two even greeted her, their voices heavy as well.

The bus sputtered to life once more and began its gentle weave through the Andes Mountains, the snow capped peaks gleaming white under the last light of the moon.

She fell into a heavy, sticky sleep, her head banging against the metal side of the bus as the bus rounded each curve, its speed increasing as the morning light came.

Each time she would wake, but only a little, and then fall back into her dreamless sleep.

Somehow she heard the squeal of the approaching car, even in her deadened sleep, heard it coming, listened to it gather speed, saw too, somehow through her closed lids, the large steep turn that was up ahead, the same turn that she and the bus made every day, her body knowing every sway and jolt that the bus retraced each day.

The car swerved safely around the awkward turn in the road, but a collectivo is a much more awkward vehicle, and it rolled onto its back, its belly spewing smoky smells, hissing, hiding the cries of the trapped people.

Menu couldn’t feel the pain, only the heavy weight of the wreck on top of her and the growing coldness that crept darkness over her.  She reached into her bag; her child’s heart was stilled.  She reached further into her bag and pulled out the belt that she had worked so hard on last night.  Holding it in her hand, she pushed with her last strength her hand out the window.  It also held a card with an address in Cuzco on it, a hotel, and a name.  She never opened her eyes.

Later in the day, the help came, but all on the bus had long since ceased to need earthly help.  The belt and card were secured by another member of Menu’s people.  She was about the same age as Menu, but she wore eight skirts and carried two children on her back, and although she too was shades of nut and earth, she did not look like Menu.

The white woman at the hotel in Cuzco woke at 10:00, pulled on her jeans and looked once more at her sleeping husband, longing to be back in the warmth of his steady breath, to nuzzle the rough new stubble along his cheeks.

She went out into the glare of the hotel lobby and stood waiting for her belt, cursing herself because it was just past 10 and the women was late.  She had given her the money, all of it, yesterday.  How foolish she felt.  The door squeaked open and in walked the Inca woman, her smile showing all of her white teeth.  She handed the belt to the white woman, saying she needed more money since she had to take the bus to get here and back.

The white woman showed her teeth too, shook her head, but knew that she still had a very good bargain.  She gave her five American dollars to make her way back home again and out of her hotel, then the white women made her way back upstairs and climbed back into bed, looking once at the colourful belt before throwing it into the corner of the room with the rest of the souvenirs: sweaters, hats, and ponchos.  She had not even noticed that she had met with a different woman today than she had yesterday.