Celestino had seen the children running around outdoors, looking for bits of old papers and rolling them up and pretending that they too would be smoking. Tonight’s cold air didn’t bring much mist, but his bones felt a deep, stirring pain in that place where no amount of rubbing, or warmth, would remove the hurt.
The smell of cooking vegetables and hot corn tortillas filled the small home. He could almost taste the coffee, could feel the tortillas’ heat, and taste the garlic scented bites of peppers, tomatoes and onions. Julia took such good care of him and his son. He would only have one small tortilla, but he would enjoy each bite, savoring the flavors of a home-cooked meal inside a home.
He could remember a time when he had been panning for gold miles deep in the mountains. Getting to the streams that held flecks of gold meant days of travel, by horse, then by foot, carrying every item that they would need to survive a few weeks before going back to restock in civilization. The sacks that had the horses’ backs swaying under the extreme weight contained rice, beans, flour and meat in cans; the buckets held baking powder, salt, and lard – everything to make the basic meals to survive.
One woman accompanied the group of over ten men, all of whom had a rifle slung across their back. She would be the cook, and for a few extra dollars, she would wash clothing too. The woman who went on his first gold search was from Guatemala, near the border. She was a hardened creature, with calloused hands and no-nonsense attitude of survival. She carried her own rifle, wore her big rubber boots and pants just like a man.
While the men were out with their pans, hands deep in the streams that ran down from the dark, dangerous forest, they would talk amongst themselves, wondering about their cook. She made good food, flavorful rice and beans would often be accompanied by fresh vegetables that only she knew where to find from around their encampment. While they discussed her one afternoon, with the sunlight streaming weakly through the canopy of trees above, they heard a single gunshot far off in the distance, closer to their camp than where they were.
Work stopped, and Celestino and another young man chose to go and see if everything was okay. They hiked, following the careful trails they made earlier to avoid getting lost. Halfway back, they heard another gunshot. It sounded so close; their hearts beat rapidly in their chest. They were young men - Celestino no longer the scared fifteen year old who had been picked up after a day’s bus ride. At twenty-two, he had taken a break from the cattle farm, trying out for gold instead.
His companion that day was a young nineteen years old, a neighbor who followed him from the farm as well, wanting to do something else for a change. They glanced at each other after the second shot, and their pace quickened. Each felt for their rifles, ready to pull them on in case of intruders. They reached the clearing around the camp, finding no movement or sound. They went under the hut that covered most of their provisions, and found the camp fire raked to low glowing embers. Everything was in its place, only their cook was missing.
From the bushes, there came the unmistakable sound of footsteps, with muffled but definite dragging sounds accompanying it. Clearing the edge of the bushes was their cook, her rifle across her back, and her hands dragging the carcass of an animal. Celestino and his companion ran to her aid, discovering a slain doe bleeding profusely from a perfectly placed head wound. She had slit the throat, letting it bleed out, but in her haste, she had dragged the animal back to camp while leaving a large trail of blood.
“Me canse de laterias.” I was tired of canned meats.
Her simple explanation made both young men laugh nervously, and even though she scowled at first, she joined in as they helped her carry the dead weight under their shelter. With swift, dexterous hands, she began the task of skinning and butchering. Celestino felt awkwardly out of place, watching her break down the animal into pieces, preparing to smoke and cure most of it. They decided to go back to see the others, with promises of a rich, hearty stew awaiting them later that evening.
The platter of vegetables sat before him, glistening with coconut oil, its delicious scent wafting up to his nostrils, awakening a hunger he hadn’t felt in months. He could almost smell the venison stew they had had that night under the thatch roof of their shelter. All around them had been the sounds of a settling night, an occasional howl breaking the murmuring silence. The men all praised their cook, wanting to hear the story of the hunt, and learning a little bit more about the person who fed them and cared for them away from home.
Now at home, waiting, for what he knew not, he smelled seasoned vegetables, drank his rich coffee, and felt the heat of the fresh tortilla in his twisted, tired hands. He thought of that woman who had done much for the young, stupid men who had followed a crazy man’s pipe dreams deep into an untamed forest. He looked at the reality of his daughter-in-law, the woman who now took care of him, and he felt the vigor of those many decades ago. He was young again, ready to find gold, ready to bite into richness. He scooped some vegetables, soft and buttery into the tortilla he held, and in one bite, he savored the memories of his life.
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