Quince, Part II

    The sharp, pungent smell of smoke woke Sara from her deep sleep. Her nose twitched, and she sneezed, once, twice, three times. Rubbing her bleary eyes, she finally opened them well enough to take in the thin film of smoke pouring through the open window. She heard shouting from somewhere outside, and when she drew close to the window, she saw the sun shining fiercely down on two men clad in shorts and long-sleeved work shirts. Between them, they carried a rack of meat that they placed over a waiting grate. Sara drew in a deep, smoke-filled breath, filling her lungs, closing her eyes and smiling widely. The big day was here.

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    She put on her rubber flip flops and walked noisily down the hall where the bedrooms were separated from the living space. The rubber slapped on the shiny wood as her steps drew her nearer and nearer where everyone spent time cooking, eating and being a family. There were a few women already in the kitchen with her mother, and they chattered away, working masa in their hands, one of them standing at the stove, stirring something delightfully aromatic in a large pot. k’ol – Sara loved that incredible, richly hued mixture of spices and masa that went inside the tamales and bollos. The soft chatter died away when she stepped inside the room, her hair sticking out every which way, her eyes still crusty with sleep. Vilma saw her messy daughter standing at the door and clicked her tongue. Well, she certainly didn’t come out of her room looking like a 15-year old should.

    With a tentative smile on her face, Sara went up to her mother and gave her a hug and a kiss good morning, then turned and bid everyone else the same. Grabbing her toothbrush from the chipped enamel cup that held everyone else’s brushes, she squeezed a bit of toothpaste on to the bristles of her pink, rather ragged toothbrush. With a quick dip into the bucket of water, she had enough water in her cup to rinse and wash her face. She strolled out to the door of the kitchen, leaning forward as she brushed, being careful not to let any paste land on her sleep clothes. Her eyes automatically closed as she brushed, so she missed someone sneaking past around the house. Just as she spat out the foam from her mouth and went to rinse and wash her face in one move, she felt a splash hit her from behind. And another sprinkle of cool water hit her in the side, a droplet going in her ear. Squealing, she turned ready to kick and slap; toothbrush and cup hitting the soft wet grass beneath. Instead, when she saw her big brother - the one who had left home a few years ago to study and hardly came home - she forgot herself and jumped right into his arms.

    After smacking a particularly tooth-pasty kiss on his rough cheek, he finally pushed her away to arms length. With his big hand on her forehead, in the classic “I’m older than you and this pose never gets old”, he studied her as she flailed, trying to get close to him, not sure if she would have smacked or hugged him again. “Well, you still look like you’re ten. Whose quinceañera is this?” Indignant, Sara screeched for her mother, who came out to give her son a warm welcome hug. Almost immediately, Sara forgot the insult, smiling instead that her big brother was home, and would be for at least a few days.

    They headed back in the kitchen, with Sara having to run back out to gather her dropped toothbrush and cup. With one more dip of the cup to finish washing and rinsing, she headed in finally to grab a small bite to eat. Her eyes finally adjusted, turning and catching sight of the most breathtaking view. There it was, sitting on their big dining table, which had been gussied up with a lace tablecloth. Sara simply stood and gaped at her special cake. One of the ladies who had come by early to help must have brought the cake stands. The cake holders were all frilly and white, so they blended seamlessly with the white base of the cakes, but oh! The frosted flowers were beautiful! All together, the fifteen cakes were a covered in a riot of pink and purple flowers: roses, quince’s and even her favorite mañanitas. Here and there amidst the pretty petals were the beautiful pale green of the grass that grew underfoot, the dark green of the mountains after the mist had risen. Sara looked at her mother, who simply stood to the side watching her as she took in her masterpiece.

    Antonio, her brother, hugged his mother with pride on his face. “Beautiful,” he told her. “Thank you,” cried Sara, unable to tear her gaze away from the confection for too long. She too, hugged her mother, feeling so grateful for her work. The ladies in the kitchen had stopped the gossiping and giggling, preferring to watch the family as they took in the amazing cake. They too, could not remember a time when they had seen such a beautiful piece. It would be a shame to cut it, but if it looked good - and if they remembered correctly, Vilma made an excellent butter cake. Well, it would probably taste even better. The woman stirring the k’ol took a few spoonfuls out on a plate, calling out to Sara to take it to the window to cool.

    With that nudge, Sara came out of her reverie, focusing instead on the hunger pangs that suddenly came on with force. She did as was told, blowing on the hot steaming k’ol, anticipating the first few creamy bites. Here and there, she saw flecks of red and orange, so she knew that it would be spicy, redolent with habanero, tomatoes, onions and sweet peppers. The fragrance was intoxicating, her mouth watering at the though of having a few tortillas stuffed with this k’ol. Antonio took off to be with the men, having gotten a nudge from his mother, and Vilma went back to the kitchen where fast and furious work had yielded an assembly line for the tamales.

    Sara quickly ate the cooled k’ol, wanting to help in assembling the bundles of tamales. As she took bite after bite of the creamy, savory meal, she watched as the women’s nimble fingers fairly flew in unison. One set of hands patted out the thick masa on a square of smoked plantain leaf. Another hand pulled at it as it was ready, ladling a generous scoop of k’ol and chicken meat, another folded it neatly: one fold over the other, like an envelope. A quick fold of the ends and it went into a pot lined with more leaves, and even the ribs of the leaves. Those ribs lined the bottom of the large cauldron, which would keep the tamales from scorching.

    When Sara tried to offer some help, however, her mother shooed her away, telling her to enjoy her special day. Having been suitably sent off, she went back to her room to change into a simple dress. Combing her hair into a ponytail, she looked in the small mirror her brother Francisco had gotten for her. There was nothing different on her face, yet, she was supposed to have changed today. Now that she was fifteen, things were different. She wondered if she could no longer throw herself at her brothers like she did earlier. If Daddy had been around, maybe she wouldn’t have. The thought of Daddy made her pause, and she quickly finished getting ready, heading out to look for him where the men were.

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