It’s been about seven days since we’ve had a full-fledged Witch move into our house and the results are dramatic. We have saucers of salt and corn meal at the door. Incense burns constantly, handmade incense at that, since Abuelita couldn’t fathom buying it from any witch shop after what happened the other day. Candles of many colors are stacked and stationed on tables and counters and bookshelves. Fresh lavender, mint, aloe and blood root have been planted in the front yard. Even our neighbors have noticed something is different and I’ve caught a few of their wandering glances fall over our house, the bored and the retired peeking their nose through half shut blinds, assuming discretion, seemingly unaware of their failure to be discreet. I can catch their invasive thoughts from a mile away.
‘I don’t know what that woman was thinking,’ Percy tells me as she cracks a few eggs into a mixing bowl. I stand next to her in the kitchen, taking my first sip of a freshly brewed cup of coffee. I consider shoving the mug into the fridge to chill it before drinking it again, but I feel lethargic, and I know that there’s nothing like the taste of coffee, sharp and pungent, to really light up the senses like the Fourth of July. ‘Moving in without a moment’s notice, invading our space, pretending to run things. Who does that?’
I hand her a whisk and she proceeds to beat the eggs in the bowl. ‘Don’t forget the garlic, Percy.’
‘And make sure to add a little milk to it.’
‘I know, you’ve told me already.’
I watch her combine the milk and the garlic, finely chopped, into the bowl as she beats the eggs. I swear, sometimes there’s almost a sort of magic in cooking. An intuition, an inkling. You feel that the mashed potatoes need a dash of Cholula sauce, that the veal needs red wine to marinate in, that the soufflé is ready to be taken out of the oven.
Watching a chef at work is endlessly fascinating. Maybe not for the magic but for the sheer underrated beauty and charm and elegance to restaurant kitchens, glossed over the by the grease and the grime and the sweat, especially the ones that are staffed by chefs who bleed love into their craft. They’re like surgeons, meticulously measuring out ingredients, a tablespoon of balsamic reduction, a pinch of clove, two ounces of red wine for the veal, operating instruments and knowing which ones work for what because slicing chicken with a steak knife will macerate the meat and render the dish useless unless you’re making a chicken scramble whereas a straight-edged knife would be preferable, and again, it depends on the type of chicken. A boning knife for deboning the chicken, a butcher knife when slicing it eighteen different ways to the underworld, and then, of course, a carving knife for when the chicken is ready to be further divided and served.
It’s a love affair, the way the lamb is braised and coated in rue, the way the dough is kneaded for the flatbreads, the way the chef raises his or her hand high above their head to sprinkle mozzarella cheese onto the flatbread so that it falls like snowflakes on a wintery day. A perfectly poached egg is an art form, for if it is taken out too early from the boiling water, it disintegrates, but left too long and it resembles a hardboiled egg. Red wine reduction for meats like beef and bison and white wine reduction for the white sauce in a pappardelle pasta dish.
Of course, I will never claim to be a chef, though I’ve learned many things over the years, floating and drifting from one restaurant to another. I’ve learned the art of dressing and deboning fish or crushing garlic with the flat side of the knife to avoid peeling it with your hands, or how to make the greatest mornay sauce in the world to pour over a croque madame that you whip up the morning after you finally stay the night at the apartment of the guy who you’ve been trying to court for the past three months. But these trivial facts do not make a great Chef. It is a gift, like so many others, a gift I can admire wholeheartedly and to the ends of the earth nonetheless. I’ve witnessed more times than I care to admit what happens to people when Chef is upset and hurt while commandeering the kitchen, the result being inflicted on the guest in the form of an upset stomach, food poisoning, and the violent expulsion of the bowels, sometimes before people even leave and I know this because as a server it is my job to make sure the bathroom for my guests is intact and sometimes it’s not, and when Chef is upset or angry, it’s really not intact and I find myself wondering if the minimum wage and the tips are really worth it while I’m scouring the toilet bowl with gloves and a scrub and a facemask. The food becomes tainted because of that strange, arcane magic that comes with the title of Chef, and Chef bleeds their feelings into their food and it can affect people. It really can.
Percy doesn’t understand that. She doesn’t see the love that food requires when preparing it. Which is why, though it annoys her, I am constantly teaching her. She must know, on some level, that I at least have a few legs to stand on. For one, she’s never worked at a restaurant.
I snap out of my own private thoughts to look up, and I see Percy staring at me, not watching as her omelet rapidly disintegrates into a scramble, not bothering to smell the whiff of the butter burning, or the fact that the spicy Italian sausage is not being cooked at all.
‘You’re messing up your omelet,’ I say.
‘You’re not even paying attention to me!’ she cries out, turning back to the pan. She begins stirring rapidly with a wooden spoon. ‘Maybe you might think that all this is cool but I don’t. Abuelita is crazy and you’re just buying into all of it.’
Crazy? No. Maybe a fraud. But not crazy, I think. There may be nothing at all to her beliefs and gifts and little charms, but that doesn’t make someone crazy. Some people just believe in everything.
‘I don’t know why this is so worrying to you,’ I say. ‘She’s not banging down your door asking you to make an offering to Ix.’
‘Do you know that she’s making mom bathe in things like sacuanjoche and lavender?’ she says, turning away from the scramble to face me. Her hair, usually neat, is up in a messy bun, hair sticking out all over.
‘I don’t see what’s the harm in that,’ I say, smiling, knowing that as the words are flying out of my mouth, I can feel her irritation growing stronger. ‘If Mother wants to believe that bathing in a few herbs and chanting will make her feel better, then what’s wrong with a little believing?’
Percy, her eyes almost popping out of her skull, bristles. Like Dee, she has yet to master the ability to close oneself off to the world. Her every thought is easily accessible, able to be caught in the air like flies over apple cider vinegar. ‘Lucas, she needs a professional, not some mumbo-jumbo witch doctor!’ Seeing my small smile, she shakes her head. ‘Why are you feeding into all of this?’
‘All of what, Persephone?’ asks Abuelita, standing over by the kitchen table.
The air around Percy immediately clamped down shut; she locked herself closed, unwilling to be emotionally accessible. A surprise that nearly levels me thoroughly. ‘Nothing, Abuelita,’ she says, murmuring as she turns back to her defeated scramble.
Abuelita, wearing a huge smirk, her eyes cackling with a malice, hovers over Percy’s shoulder and into the small pan of food. ‘If you don’t want to get sick, I suggest you throw that away,’ she says tartly, feigning care and turning swiftly to the French Press we have. ‘Making food while upset, tsk tsk tsk. No, I would’ve thought your Mother would’ve taught you better.’ And then, while pouring a bit of coffee into a violet colored mug that Dee painted, she unleashes more fire, the final barb to sting against not just Percy, but nearly everyone in the house: ‘But then again, I suppose I assumed too much of my daughter. Can’t even give a proper offering to the Gods, let alone an Aluxe.’ She takes a sip, closing her eyes and enjoying the heat and strength of the dark roasted coffee beans. Alone at last, up at the top, towering over everyone mentally and emotionally, she sits on her throne. ‘I suppose I can’t fault your own ignorance, Persephone. After all, you don’t know any better.’
Percy, with violent red and black sparks shooting out of her head, immediately shuts off the stove burner and bolts past Abuelita, and flies up the set of stairs to her room. Abuelita, satisfied, takes the pan in one hand and empties its contents into the trash, tapping it so that what’s stuck to it manages to be flung off. With one swift move, she wipes the pan with a napkin and sets it back onto the stove before looking at me, her grin growing. ‘I don’t have to teach you how to make an omelet, do I?’
A scamper down the stairs is heard, the jingle of keys, and then the front door slams shut, and as I look over, I see Mother at the foot of the stairs, her light brown eyes furrowed in confusion. ‘Where is Percy going?’ asks Mother, as Dee enters the living room.
‘To buy a cookbook, hopefully,’ quips Abuelita, taking another long swig of coffee. How she can chug it, scalding and harsh, is a mystery to me. Her pain threshold must be extraordinary.
‘What happened?’ asks Mother, approaching the kitchen, her heels clacking along the tiled floor. ‘What did you say?’
‘La cosa es que ella piense que soy una bruja loca,’ says Abuelita, not looking up from her mug. ‘She is not alone in thinking that I’m crazy or a fraud but I had to set her straight. This is who we are. There is no denying it.’
‘Abuelita,’ I say, dazed. I feel drained, usually where I once stood proud and tall, feel as vulnerable as a newborn around her. ‘You didn’t have to –’
‘I didn’t have to what? Tell her the truth? Put her in her place?’ She does not raise her voice, yet she sounds as though her voice is everywhere in the room, rattling around the house. ‘She does not know what our family has been through over the years. She has no clue of the wars we’ve been through. She grew up in America as a white skinned Latina; you want to tell me she’s faced racism and discrimination from people in this country? Ella intiende nada de la vida. She has no leg to stand on.’
I want to argue, to fight back, to level the playing field; a Titaness of Biblical proportions fighting against mere mortals who do little than snap at her heels is not a fair fight. I want to tell her she is wrong for being so narrow minded, for spearheading her own beliefs, for disrupting the status quo in our once peaceful household…but a thought sinks into my head, and deep down, I know that Abuelita is right.
I am a child – Percy is a child, hell, we are all technically her children; and what’s more, I have not lived through too many years of my own. How can any of us call this woman a charlatan for not understanding what she herself claimed she understood? How can I criticize her for figuring out how to help her family? I often forget how ‘spoiled’ I am, the privilege I have, of being born in America and never having to endure a war that claimed a land I would never see again. Maybe my disconnection with my homeland impedes the power of rituals, sacred acts that have been passed from generation to generation to generation. I know nothing about living in tents after fleeing Managua when it began to burn, leaving behind homes that my ancestors had built before the days of the Europeans, back when the soil beneath their feet was as alive as the next person and when the Gods, Chaac and Quetzalcoatl, roamed the skies in the form of dragons.
I know very little about my family history before the War. I know very little about our past. I know we are of Mayan descent and I know that my people were Children of the Wind, worshipping it, fearing it, knowing the great wonder and ruin the Wind could create. Where there was Wind, there was life; where there was life, there were endless opportunities. And my people knew that. Abuelita taught me that at an early age to respect and fear the wind. That everything the Wind touched was temporary. The world is always shifting. People are always dying. Change always happens. But the Wind? Eternal as the idea of life and death.
And to be honest? Maybe that’s all I really need to know about my people.
Maybe that’s where the real magic lies in.
‘Paulina,’ says Abuelita, grabbing ahold of the carton of eggs. ‘Sit, you too, Dee. I’m making breakfast. And I have an announcement to make.’
Dee, pulling out her chair, plops down at the table, her eyebrow raising. ‘Abuelita, why not just say it instead of making us wait?’
‘Yes, Mama, the suspense is killing us,’ says Mother, dryly, as she sits down next to Dee.
I look over at Abuelita and can almost feel her excitement beam off her like rays of sunlight, the way her eyes light up given the chance to tell a story. For Abuelita, it is always storytime.
‘I propose,’ starts Abuelita, cracking the eggs in one hand and throwing them into the pan in fluid motion; the smell of warm, salted butter combines with the sounds of the eggs sizzling, floating over the whole house like a cloud of opportunity and possibility. ‘That Paulina starts working part time, that Percy focuses on full time school, and Dee can have all the time in the world to figure out what she wants to do with her life.’
‘I already know what I want to do,’ snaps Dee, her head bleeding a sour yellow shimmer.
‘Being a veterinary technician is not a life goal it’s a band-aid until you can find something better, mija,’ says Abuelita immediately, the sounds of spoons banging against more than one pan being heard.
‘Well, Mama, it’s a nice goal to just not work anymore, but how are we going to make money?’ asks Mother, sitting up tall. ‘You can’t just snap your fingers and money will appear.’
‘Of course not,’ says Abuelita, slyly. ‘But you need to work less; you need to take it easy. It’s bad for your health to be so stressed out about your job all the time.’
‘It’s not my job, Mama, who else is going to pay the bills? I have rent to pay, I have children that are still living in my house, I have food to buy. It’s the stress of life, I can’t afford to not work. Have any of us worn the lottery?’
I could feel the thought leap out of Abuelita, like a jaguar about to pounce on a bird, in silver and green. I knew her thoughts before she said it.
‘I want to open up a Botanica,’ she says, triumphantly, as she brings over the large pan and sets a plate in front of Mother. With a swift motion and the twist of her wrist, she flips the omelet, perfectly golden on all sides, onto the plate effortlessly.
‘Boxed-up magic, I see,’ says Mother, staring at her omelet.
‘Your headaches have gone away, haven’t they, Mija?’
The silence is deafening. Mother nods slowly.
‘Is it really boxed-up magic, then?’
Victory, white like her wings, seems to stand behind Abuelita; it isn’t even ten in the morning and already, two enemies vanquished. As I look over at her, I see Abuelita gripping the pan tightly as she smiles, the way she’d grab a turkey by the neck, ready to snap it and pluck it’s feathers, bit by bit, before preparing it to feast on it’s flesh.