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CANE / Daryl Lane WE SQUATTED IN A CIRCLE on the wet surface of the páramo and took turns drinking from a single glass. The place was high and cold; a thick mist, called "neblina" by the Andean mestizos, made visibility beyond a few meters impossible. Slashing our circle was a narrow channel of mud, a meandering groove that had been sliced by hoofs through the straw that covered the páramo. This was the mule trail; unless one flew, it was the only route over the top of the Andes down into the jungles of the Amazon fourteen thousand feet below us. There were six of us in the circle: Pepe and I and four campesinos. We were days from any other people, any village or farm. Nothing lived on these unfriendly heights of the páramo of Moriré. One normally didn't tarry or stop while crossing it either, but we were engaged in a serious business. The campesinos were coming up out of the lowlands with a muddy caravan of aguardiente, a contraband liquor distilled from jungle cane, as raw and sheer as the Andes themselves. Pepe and I had been traveling downward into the Amazon region, known as the Oriente, when we had encountered the campesinos and mules. The meeting required a ritual: the serious business of drinking. We had come upon each other suddenly. In the dense neblina our two parties were entangled before we knew what had happened, but we quickly got sorted out, exchanged handshakes and greetings, and settled down into a circle. One of the campesinos had fumbled a moment under his poncho and came out with a glass—dirty, chipped, and heavy—and handed it to the man beside him. Then he produced a bottle, equally dirty and chipped, from beneath the other side of his poncho. It was stoppered with a corn cob. He filled the small glass with aguardiente, took it from the other campesino, and handed it to me. "Sírvase, mister," he said, while making a turning motion with his hand. "Sírvase." I looked down into the glass. The liquor was a colorless brilliance, crystal-sharp with clarity. It appeared smooth, cool, serene as pond water—but I knew better. Almost daily during my months in the Andes I had had to drink this contraband liquor, had felt the fierce explosion as it penetrated my body, and had gasped for breath while the liquid temporarily gutted me. Since we had no hot water or sugar to cut it with, it had to be taken "puro." I readied myself. The Missouri Review · 225 Next to us, the mules bent to the damp straw. Strapped to their backs were crude eucalyptus-wood saddles; lashed to these, on either side, were burlap sacks, coated with rubber and bulbous now with their cargo of contraband aguardiente. The sacks and the mules' bellies were slathered with mud. Surrounding our little group was the vast páramo—unhued and muffled within the neblina. A high, barren plain lying just beneath the peaks of the Andes, the parama was ancient and inhospitable to man. Perhaps, after all, a fine place to drink. I ran my thumb over the chipped rim of the glass. "Salud," I whispered, and tossed it down. The innocent liquid was transformed into a fiery gash, a warm stomach, watery eyes. Gasping a hoarse "gracias," I handed back the glass. Then each of the others drank, the bottle following the glass around the circle until it returned to the campesino who had poured my drink. He re-stoppered the bottle, slipped it and the glass back under the poncho. We conversed for a while. The campesinos had never seen a gringo before, an Anglo from the United States, and they had many questions. But we couldn't delay our journey very long; we needed to find shelter before dark, some kind of protection from the cold, damp heights. We shook hands and parted. The páramo was less empty now. Our visit had established human elements in this high and isolated immensity. Pepe and I sloshed off down the mule trail, through the neblina, with a newly rekindled warmth that...


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