It seemed to Carla that the children ate more while at the milpa than at any other time. Their week drew to a close and it was soon time to head back home. Justo had headed out to try and catch some game with his rifle, so his family stayed under the thatched house and packed their belongings to take back home. Their horses seemed a bit fatter too, having enjoyed some of the leftover fruits that the children would leave for them. Hammocks were brought down, packed into the wooden box and placed up off the floor in case there was some rain.
In the distance, they heard a loud bang, which echoed over and over in the surrounding hills. A loud squawking and flutter of wings could be heard all around as the birds in the forest took flight in fear for their lives. The family cocked their ears, thinking that there was either going to be a nice bit of game meat to bring home for the Tzib clan, or there would be a very disheartened Justo heading in with a bit less ammunition. Either way, they continued packing and getting ready. They were carrying some delicious watermelons for the family, as well as a heap of young corn so each family could make their own tamalitos and atole. Carla’s oldest sister Eloisa was going to enjoy her boiled corn with lime, pepper and salt.
Soon, everything was packed up, and it was just time to wait. The forest was still eerily still, not a sound from the birds or any other nature calls. The gunshot had sent a message across the forest. Under the thatch roof, Araceli halfheartedly swept the dirt floor, brushing away the leaves that blew in often, and raking the dying embers in the hearth. Daniel eyed the fresh melons, wondering if he could convince his sisters to eat one with him. Just as he was about to ask them he heard a whoop and whistle from the forest, and he saw his papa coming towards them. He ran to go help, his appetite forgotten in his excitement to see what Papa had caught.
With his gun slung over his shoulder, Justo barreled through the brush dragging a hefty sack that was maroon with blood. His son grabbed one end of the bag and together they pulled and dragged it to the building where the rest of the family waited. Dainty hooves peeked out from the top of the sack, and Carla knew there would be a delicious deer inside. She was right.
Justo had caught a young buck, and he had to prepare the animal for carrying to the family compound. He took his sharp machete and with one clean sweep, slit the animal’s throat, bleeding it properly so that the meat wouldn’t spoil. He hung the large animal rather awkwardly from the rafters of the building to drain some more into an old bucket while he searched for the wound and cleaned it, cutting the burned flesh away.
A fresh sack was procured, and between the man and young boy, the drained animal was stuffed into the new sack. Iliana watched bug-eyed as the animal was trussed and tied into the sack. All around the entrance to the building the grass took on a purplish hue from the blood of the animal. To avoid critters, Carla had both her girls take some water from a few buckets to pour over and wash away the stain of the blood. A few leaves remained purple, but most of the blood was gone. They were ready to head home.
There was an air of anticipation as they loaded their horses and guided them the way they had arrived. They were surrounded by a still forest, with only a few sounds here and there. Slowly, as they got deeper into the forest, birds started to rustle again and the sounds of their settling in made the forest seem less eerie. They stopped at the creek again and the horses enjoyed a leisurely drink before they continued on their trek homeward. The air was cool and refreshing, and even though the sun was out somewhere overhead, they hardly could enjoy the warm rays for the thick canopy above them.
Justo whistled tunelessly as he led his family home, thinking of the delicious meat that they would enjoy with his big catch. He loved a good hunk of deer meat, and the thought of a good stew, some soup, and that delicious salado had him smiling all the way. He would ask Noel to help him cut the prized meat and prepare a feast for the family. He already was thinking that the buck’s antlers would look good hanging on the wall in the house. He remembered how his father had many antlers saved; how each one had a story – a life sacrificed to keeping him and his brothers and sisters fed and healthy.
Nowadays hunting wasn’t a big sport, and Justo and his brothers in law often only hunted the smaller animals, preferring to let the deer roam free. Besides, the gibnuts and armadillos were rather pesky at the milpa. His catch today had been sheer luck.
Carla wondered if her sister-in-law Paula would be able to eat some of the meat now that she was carrying a baby. Some women reacted strangely to game meat when pregnant. At the least, the smoked loins with lots of pepper sauce and hot fresh tortillas would be delicious and probably perfect for her.
The horses and their riders hit the final hilltop, and headed downwards into sunshine. There was ample time to clean the deer and start preparing the meat. The horses moved faster as Justo, Carla and Daniel nudged, urging them to up their pace. Home was close, and there was much to do.
When they entered their yard, a few cousins ran happily to greet them, helping with the sacks of things that they had brought in. It was a lazy Sunday, and everyone was at home, either swinging in hammocks or doing this and that in the yard and house. Noel and Eloisa came over from where they had been cleaning their yard, eager to hear how the week had been, and upon seeing the sack and hooves sticking out, Eloisa beamed. Quickly, and in her typical fashion, she rounded up the bigger boys to run and get the rest of the family to come over and help skin and butcher the animal. Carla unpacked the watermelons, simply rolling them out to the grass. She had the girls take the clothes and kitchen things to the kitchen area where eventually it would all be cleared and put away.
The men came over quickly to see the buck, clapping Justo on the back for his excellent shot while he beamed at their praise. Sharp knives glinted in the sunlight as the men prepared to skin and cut the meat. Eloisa stood around, clamoring for the meaty loin, which she planned on smoking. Carla had one of her nephews get sour oranges, and another brought over a bucket of fresh water. Judith came with her baby Lucia, enjoying the spectacle unfolding in the yard. The other wives soon joined the crowd and it was all hands on deck.
The kitchen fire was lit, and for the first part of the meal that the buck provided, it was a quick stew. The fresh meat was perfect for the rich and thick stew, gamey and delicious with hot tortillas. The remaining meats were divided up amongst the other families who would smoke the cuts over their fire hearths until they were ready to cook up a soup or even more stew.
The much adored loin was cleaned reverently in lots of sour orange, and then cut to make long ropes of meat that would go overhead of the fire hearth, smoking away for days, absorbing the slow heat and taking on the flavor of the smoke that rose up from it every day. Eloisa managed to get lots of good cuts that every house would have their own long strand to smoke. Carla and Justo agreed that she would also get the liver, seeing as she took care of everyone. Eloisa was so pleased with her gift, and she immediately envisioned liver and lots of onions and peppers. Her sons wrinkled their faces in distaste, hoping one of their other aunts would take them in for dinner when the liver dish was made.
Soon all the meat that could have been taken from the animal had been cut and distributed, and each family had their good hunks of meat ready for a week’s worth of food. Carla had her husband put the long strand of meat on hooks that went up above the fire, made especially for these occasions. Once the meat had been put up to preserve, Carla began cutting onions, peppers, garlic and cilantro to prepare the big pot of stew that everyone would enjoy at her house. A few of the men followed Justo’s example, and they went to put up the meats over the fire hearths in their homes. Their wives stayed behind, helping Carla clean up, unpacking her mobile kitchen, putting away clothes and provisions where they belonged while she cooked. Luisa sent her husband Elias to get the boiled corn to make masa, ready to provide the tortillas to eat the stew with. She also had him put up her piece of the salado over her fire hearth. The other pieces would hold until it was time to go home, where they would soak the cuts overnight in lots of sour orange liquid and some garlic and onions.
The other children eyed the watermelons in the yard, and at the go ahead, happily split open the largest they could find, with their oldest cousin Julio wielding the knife. All was silent at the front of the yard, as children sat and enjoyed the cool, sweet watermelon. Every few moment loud giggles erupted as they took turns spitting seeds.
Soon the smell of sizzling onions and garlic filled the air. The hiss of meat hitting the hot fat soon followed, and a most amazing pungent scent overtook everything. Fresh venison was like no other. This was a treat that many families didn’t get to enjoy for months, and it was a big affair. Husbands who had come back from hanging meats to smoke were roped into grinding corn for masa, while wives washed and cleaned and got ready to make fresh tortillas. Eloisa took over the cooking, forcing Carla to sit down and enjoy a bit of a respite after her long journey and week in the milpa. Every single one of the wives knew what the milpa meant: a week of field work, hot sun, and tending to family in a different environment.
As the sun went down and dark shadows cast themselves over the gathering, the stew was done. The meat was silky soft, and in its rich broth flavored with onion and garlic, pepper and cilantro, and even a few tomatoes, there was a promise of pleasantly full tummies and happy palates. Between Elena, Juliana and Luisa, the tortillas were quickly stacked on the table as well. Mothers called to their children, who scampered in with stained clothes from the watermelon. They had been playing games and making room for dinner, which smelled delicious.
Plates full of rich stew were served, and everyone found a place to sit, or to place their plates, and soon the only sounds that filled the air were slurps, burps and sighs of pleasure. The pile of tortillas was in danger of vanishing when the last bits of gravy were wiped up and eaten. Justo thought that his stroke of luck at the milpa was more of a blessing – for how many men could say they could feed families with one shot? He looked over at his wife and children, and smiled as he saw Iliana and Araceli both yawn. His son Daniel was already drooping; he knew for a fact that the children would not be waking up with the sun in the morning. He only hoped he himself could get up in time to head back to the milpa. Or perhaps he would leave Don Rene to handle the milpa for the day, and he would stay and enjoy his family for another day. Perhaps…
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