Monday, November 10, 2014


Keekeeyo, the rooster, was crowing in the front courtyard, sounding like bacon frying in a pan.  Amanda rose, wondering if she had remembered to water the chickens the night before.  She nudged her husband, Juan as she lifted little Pepito from the bed.

“Get up,” she said, gently.  “Keekeeyo is already awake!”  Juan opened his eyes, but turned his back toward her.  The night before the couple had fought and Juan left her to drink beer with Alejandro.  Amanda remembered him crawling over her to get to his side of the bed sometime during the night.  She pretended to be asleep, even when Juan stroked her hair and apologized. 

Now she stared at his back and sighed.  She knew it would be difficult to rouse him with the hangover, so she tied Pepito to her back and went to the outhouse.  The air was already warm and Keekeeyo was crowing madly.  The hens saw her and followed her like children as she walked over the broken pebbled pathway, white with lime wash to keep the scorpions away.

She took the stick and opened the door, making careful circles with the wood around the seat.  The air was stiff and ripe already.  As she sat down, Amanda knew it would be another hot day.  She heard Pepito yawn, then mutter something.

“Yes, it is hot already,” she said, playfully.  Amanda thought of how the child would be bathed in the yellow enamel  tub, fresh water washing luxuriously over his tiny body.  She wished she could be a child again, even if it meant she would be incontinent and dependent on someone, if only she could experience the thrill of a fresh water bath each morning.

She closed the door to the outhouse and was surprised to see Juan walking toward her.  She was careful to look down and avert his gaze.  He would accuse her of wicked things if he was still angry.  Instead of an unsteady walk, Juan took careful steps along the pathway, reaching her and stepping to the side so that she could pass.  She turned back to watch him complete his walk to the outhouse, which he did unceremoniously, leaving the stick outside.  It wasn’t necessary that he sweep the seat, since she had just been sitting down and proven the absence of a scorpion or spider.  Being the second one to the outhouse had its advantages.

Amanda could not escape the chickens, who clucked anxiously at her ankles, reminding her to tip a tin can of seed for them in the courtyard.  She reached across the wood column that supported the east side of their simple adobe home, clutching the top of a large rubber garbage barrel.  Inside was a rusted can and a smattering of seeds on the bottom of the barrel that could not be scooped up.  

Because of its position, Amanda could not lift the barrel easily.  She had to step down to the garbage area and move the  pieces of wood and aluminum away from it in order to grip it in her hands and lift it to the courtyard.  She managed, since the barrel was not heavy, to tip it over and let the dregs of the food fall across the courtyard, in full sun.  The chickens madly pecked at the seed, as if they knew it was the last of it.  The fat red hen got most of it.  The little grey one, a gift from her father for Pepito’s birth, got barely any.

“Why aren’t you faster?” Amanda scolded him, walking back to the garbage area and setting the barrel back in place.  “You will die in no time if you let that Mama bully you!” She looked up to see Juan smiling at her; she steeled herself.

“Are you working today?” she placed the wood and aluminum pieces  gently in place againt the barrel.  “If the family manages to pay you today we might be able to buy more feed so that they can continue laying.” 

Juan looked at her steadily.  “I am working.” 

He went into the house and Amanda heard him getting dressed.  She walked into the darkened home, a simple square of twenty by twenty feet.  A bright yellow curtain hung near the center, dividing their bedroom from the living area, an orderly arrangement of a lamp, couch and chair with a small table used for eating.  There was a long table against the South wall that was their kitchen.  A small grey gas stove sat next to a clay base that dispensed fresh water from a plastic five liter bottle.  The writing on the clay base said “Yosemite” and had a great mountain with a man overlooking a valley.  
Sometimes Amanda wondered where the mountain of Yosemite was.  

For now, she brought a red plastic washing basin from under the table and filled it with two cups of water from the dispenser. 

Soon Juan came from behind the curtain and walked to the basin to wash his hands and face. 
Amanda watched him from the corner of her eye.  He was a tall man, strong and lean like his father.  He had the curse of being handsome, and an even greater curse of a curled moustache.  He reached for the rag that hung next to the door and dried his hands and face.  When they were dry, he turned toward Amanda, his eyes round and brown.  She handed him his white straw hat, but did not smile.  Amanda knew that he was sorry, but she would not look at him.  Instead of speaking, Juan left quietly, his footsteps crunching against the pebbles.  Keekeeyo crowed at him, his voice weak and crackling like a dying fire. 

“Daddy is off to work,” Amanda said quietly to Pepito.  “Now it is time for you!”  She was untying the cloth that tightly held him against her back and reached around to cradle her five-month-old son in her arms.  His large brown eyes (just like his father’s) took a moment to focus, but soon saw his mother’s face and a great smile broke out over his face.  The child contracted his arms and legs and stretched them out as if to celebrate her presence.  The action made Amanda laugh in gratitude.
“Yes,” she said, softly.  “It is the bath time.”  The child was dimpled and fat and filled with joy as Amanda washed him in the same basin Juan had just used.  She poured out two more cups on her son’s brown belly and Pepito inhaled deeply before urinating in volcanic fashion. 

There was a cracked mirror in their tiny kitchen, hanging above the washing basin.  In between bathing her son, Amanda caught glimpses of herself, hair still neatly braided on each side; face pale against her black hair.  She smiled and her dimples appeared, the ones that her Papa loved.  She always knew she was his favorite daughter and therefore bore the happiness of a dearly loved child.  Today, she would have to go to him and ask for money.  If he granted it to her, she would buy the seed that her husband wouldn’t.  She would be the one who would be responsible for a harvest.

“Hola! Amanda!”  A voice called to her from the courtyard.  Amanda reached for the rag to dry her son, but could not find it. 

Si, yo soy aqui!”  She called, steadying her son with one hand and searching for it with the other.  She finally found it, placed carelessly next to the basin instead of the hook by the door.  Juan had left it on the counter in his way out.

“Good Morning!”  Abita stepped into her home, freshly bathed and looking smart in a white blouse and red skirt with a yellow belt.  “Are you coming to the pupusaria with me today?”

Amanda looked at her friend and exhaled, with great regret.  She had forgotten her promise to her friend, made only two days ago.  Abita ran a local pupusaria, where she would cook the stuffed tortillas for the villagers for lunch and evenings.  Lately, business was good and Abita had asked Amanda to help just to ease the workload during the lunchtime.  Amanda had agreed, knowing she and Juan could use extra money.

“I’m sorry, Abita,” Amanda said.  “I have to go see my father today!”  Pepito squirmed as she dried him.  Amanda walked to the bed and laid him down to dress him in the soft cloth diapers and wool soakers she had made him.  There was a cotton shirt she was planning on making him wear, but she couldn’t find it in his drawer.

Abita had followed her behind the curtain.  “Why not visit your Papa tomorrow?  My sister will be back home by then and I will not need any help at all.  Are you able to postpone one day?”

Amanda located the shirt behind one of her own.  The family had only one chest of drawers and so far things were manageable, but crowded. 

“I need to see him today,” Amanda looked up at her friend, a thin woman with a long face.  Abita had glasses, but wore them only at night.  The bridge of her nose had two oval marks where her glasses rested normally.  Amanda thought the marks made her friend  look clever.  “I need to buy the seed to plant corn today.  It is the last week I will have to plant.  I’ve made the rows in the field but Juan will not buy them.”

Abita shifted on her feet, looking at her friend with a small scowl.  “Didn't you say that Juan is not going to plant the American seeds?”

“He has refused to use them,” Amanda shook her head, angrily.  “Even though the American seed is cheaper... and grows faster.  He wants to buy the seed that his father got from Honduras.  He says that seed will do better in our soil.”

“And the farmers are not annoyed by the Honduran seed,” Abita said, quietly.  Amanda looked up at her and raised her eyebrows.  

“While some farmers can have the luxury of being annoyed by the American seed, my field is waiting to be planted!  I have a baby and I have no money!  I have to borrow the money as it is to buy the cheap seed!”

Abida knew to be silent.  Pepito’s round body bounced as Amanda tightened the soaker in place.  He looked at the ceiling as his mother unfolded his shirt and pulled it over his head.   “Now I am forced to buy the seed that I myself will sow into the ground so it will not go fallow?  I choose the promise of life and I am the rebel?  I am the traitor to my people?”

Abita exhaled and sat down on the bed.  “I need you today, Amanda.  I need you to help me make the pupusas.  You love helping me.  Please come and take your mind off of this.  You can postpone this trip for one day, can’t you?”

Amanda shook her head, straightening Pepito’s clothes.  “We fought last night,” she said, motioning for Abita to help her make the bed.  The friends stood and made the bed carefully, like sisters used to working around Pepito.  “Last night he called me a traitor and a disobedient wife.”

Abita nodded, looking up at her friend to see  if the emotion in her voice was actually tears.  She could see a red-eyed Amanda straightening the pillows. 

“You know he is under great pressure,” Abida said, softly.  “The farmers he works with don’t like the American seeds.  They’re unnatural and forced upon us…”

“The farmers he works with don’t put food on our table!”

“They help, don’t they?” Abida  shook her head.  “It is a small town and I promise you that if you plant that field with the yellow seed…”

“What?” Amanda straightened herself and placed her hands on her small hips.  “They will know?  They will find out and treat Juan harshly?”

“You know they will!” Abita looked at her friend, still unbending in her stance before her.  In a moment, she shrugged her shoulders.  “Look, I respect your desire to grow a crop.  God knows that you are one brave soul for not caring about the farmers’ position… but take one more day to think about it.”  Amanda was thinking deeply; Abita continued.  “I need you today, conchita bonita!”  She saw a flash of hope in her friend’s eyes as she stroked the child’s arms lovingly.   Almost intentionally, Amanda became stoic.

“I need to do this…” she said and picked up her son.  She hoisted him on her hip and walked back out to the kitchen.  Reaching under the narrow kitchen table, Amanda took out a clean, blue cloth and tied Pepito to her back, securing him deftly.  The child made a small squeal as his mother tightened the knot, but soon Amanda heard him cooing.   

Abida followed her friend out to the courtyard, where the chickens chased her down the path, hungry and ready to eat again. 

*    *    *    *

It was noon and the oil in her pan was smoking, causing Abida to step away from her cooktop.  There were three hungry customers in line and each of them wanted the pupusas with cheese and cabbage slaw.  She had just run out of cabbage slaw, using the last of it on the customers before these. 

“It will be five minutes, at least,” she told the men, breathlessly.  They looked at the sun to see if they could wait, which panicked Abida.  “I will hurry!  You will be more than satisfied!”  The men looked at each other, but walked back and forth with familiar impatience that Abida had grown accustomed to. 

She pulled a ball of masa from the bowl, rolling it around her palms quickly and snapping it back and forth between her hands.  The “slap slap slap slap” of dough both comforted and tempted the men, who watched the process with mouths watering.  The dough became a bowl between her fingers and then Abida filled the bowl with cheese.  She reached for a fingerful of dough and then covered the pupusa over again.  She reached for her wooden dowel to roll the stuffed tortilla flat, just as she heard a rhythmic chopping behind her.  She turned to see Amanda, chopping the cabbage slaw with care and speed.  She reached for carrots and onion, gently moving around her friend.  The two women considered each other with faint smiles as they sped through the process to feed the three men before they would walk off. 

“So you did not go see your Papa?” Abita asked Amanda.  The question hung in the air and for awhile Abita thought that perhaps her friend had not heard her.

“I need to think about it one more day,” she finally heard her say. The onions were being sliced with accuracy, her friend could tell.  She began to smell the combination of the slaw ingredients, even as the dough was being fried.

“If we sell twenty pupusas today,” Abita said, smiling.  “You will have enough money to go buy a sack of seed to feed your hens.”

“The hens are not as important as this child in my house,” Amanda said as she mixed the slaw ingredients together and placed a portion on top of each grilled tortilla.  The pupusas’ corners were brown, dripping with cheese and fragrant with savory seasoning.  The men smiled eagerly at the creations, nodding their thanks to the women as they paid and took their food away from the counter. 

“Those hens lay eggs,” Abita said, quickly.  “Eggs are for the humans; seed is for the hens.”

The next two customers came to the stand, asking how fresh the chorizo was.  As Abita told them it was purchased last night, Amanda considered her son, asleep on her back.  The greatest joy of motherhood, she thought, was knowing that her son was always with her, content with the world around him and unconcerned about the politics of seeds. 

For a good pupusa recipe check this out!

In July of this year farmers across El Salvador united to block the purchase of Monsanto genetically modified seeds.  They chose, instead to plant local seeds that have caused a greatly reduced harvest, but one they can have confidence in.  Today family farms in El Salvador are fighting to keep enough of the food they grow to feed their families.  To help them, you can sign a petition here.