Bread and peas
Our plates were empty of paella and were pushed away. His knees were feather-light, poking into my thighs. He leaned up, swooping his blanket over my face and hooding my head with his swaddling blanket and chortling.
It was light and white, clingy like muslin, and it smelled like babies: powder, and musty lavender, and over-washed cotton. I could almost see through it and breathe through it. I hemmed the cloth in between my mouth and pretended to bite him. "Mum mum mum!" I wobbled along his shoulder and arm.
Samuel shrieked with laughter, and I pulled the blanket off my face. "Peekaboo!" He hooded me again and I mouthed him through the cloth. He pulled it off, and this time I hooded him instead.
He shrieked and nosedived like a swan into my neck and excitedly took a chunk out of my chest. The pain ricocheted up my throat as if my skin cells had stood up and crawled away -- but I swallowed any sounds. I only whipped the blanket off his head, and looked at him white-eyed, whispering,
"Suficiente, cariño, suficiente."
Later I examined my skin in the mirror in the bathroom. It actually wasn't that bad. To the right, under my collarbone, it was a strawberry kiss in the mark of a dove. Purple-mottled.
A Spanish woman is a magician, and chopping blocks don't seem to exist.
Peppers, potatoes, onions, are held in the air and whittled to bits with the other hand, the blade skating towards her thumb. Abuela Avelina did this with my bread. The loaf itself was art -- buckskin-colored and tough like a turtle's back, but dewy inside. Soft with holes. The color and the thick crust meant that the flour was good, that there had been steam in the oven, and that the dough had been allowed to ferment and bake slowly.
I was the only other person awake. The Galician woman heated me coffee. It was black and hot in a small glass. Then she cut me another hunk of bread. She picked up a vase and showered olive oil on the surface. She clanked a pewter pot of salt on the table and gestured to it, so I pinched the salt. But Abuela Avelina shook her head. She cupped her hands together, signalling to me to take more.
I balked, so she scooped her own rough hand into the pot, and poured a bank of salt onto my bread. It washed over the bread like snow, and began to turn yellow and wet, soaking up the oil. "Thanks," I said, but when I bit into the bread, I realized it was sugar.
The morning before, I had found her baking hut on the mountain. Right when I opened the bolted door (the latch sprigged with weeds to keep out evil spirits) and stepped onto the earthen floor, I knew where I was -- not because of the beehive oven, made of daub, but because the smell told me. Decades of flour, salt, and yeast was sifted together, compounded with ash and wood-smoke, until I could stand in the middle of the floor and breathe the scent of a thousand loaves and feel full forever.
The rising sun was slanting in through the cracked door and curling up like a tabby on the floor. I opened a tin vat. The base was coated with white flour and cornmeal, and I printed my hands in it. In one corner of the hut were empty burlap bags. Along another wall were stacks of fresh weeds: potatoes were stashed between the layers of sagebrush and heather. Old wooden hoops for making cheese hung, broken, on the wall. And I touched the oven sides: they were made of clay and straw.
The dirt was hot and bubbly between my toes. I crouched in the garden, picking peas from dragging bushes of vines. Draped over my back, like an animal pelt, was the baby, his hands hanging down either side of my neck.
"Want to help me, cariño?"
"Si, te ayudo," he pipped. With his toes and a grunt, he kicked off the ground, and strained for a twisted pea. -- "Allah!" he cried. "No puedo, Sarah," pouting. "No puedo."
"Pero no pasa nada." I lifted the creeping bush off the ground. "Mira."
He crowed, kicking off once again and diving forward, reaching for the vine. He split a sultry pea off, and dropped it in the bucket with a pop. "Otra vez," he demanded, but when I lifted the vine again, he batted my hand away. "No! Yo puedo."
"Si, tú puedes."
So I became a rocking horse, as the baby half-choked me and continued kicking off the ground and reaching for peas -- pale white or bug-bitten -- and red dirt was rubbed up my arms, and my fingers pricked through leaves to find the slushy ones. We filled two buckets, and I side-shuffled down the rows, my feet skidding through dirt. Samuel was as comfortable as a coat. A warm, lumpy down coat. Caked with earth, and sometimes squeaking.
Oh, and sometimes stuffing peas, not into the bucket, but into my mouth.
"Come," he said, gently sidling a sixth or seventh pea in. "Come, come." ("Eat, eat.")
"No!" I turned my head, hacking and laughing. "No mas. No puedo."
"Come," he insisted, dangling an eighth pea in front of me. "Tú puedes. Puedes, hombre!"
"Samuel, no mas!"
He reached out and tenderly pulled my face toward the pea. With iron baby fingers, he screwed open my jaw and with his other hand flattened the pea into my mouth. Then he patted the top of my head. "Good boy," he said.