NOT MY FATHER’S HOUSE – Chapter 5

CHAPTER 5

Stands Alone’s prediction that fall will arrive early holds true, and Suzanna realizes irritably that he also correctly predicted that her corn won’t ripen in time. The September afternoons are chilly, but the ears of maíz are still so thin that the raccoons have stopped monitoring them.

The scarecrow she erected to keep the ravens away isn’t necessary, either. The big croaking corvines are too busy playing tag with the red-winged blackbirds in the clear sunlight. Two eagles circle endlessly above the smaller birds, seemingly indifferent to everything but each other.

As she stands in the middle of her corn patch, the Ute puppies playing at her feet, Suzanna rubs the sore spot under her ribs and turns slowly, studying the mountain slopes north and west. They’re gradually turning yellow, the patches of aspen getting brighter each day.

She turns back to her half-formed ears of corn. Tarnation. She planted as soon as she was able. There’d been so much to do when they arrived in mid-May. Although it’s unlikely that planting any earlier would have done any good. It had been too cold to expect corn to sprout.

Suzanna’s cheeks redden. It hadn’t been too cold for other things. The little lean-to she and Gerald had slept in those first few nights before Ramón arrived and the men started work on the cabin had never really felt chilly.

She smiles and rubs the sore spot just below her rib cage again. She has to admit she was a little preoccupied when they first arrived in the valley and not terribly concerned with getting the planting underway. She chuckles. As a result, she’s going to be preoccupied next spring, too. She’ll have a baby to care for.

But surely that won’t take all her time. And surely this last spring was colder than usual. Suzanna studies the anemic rows of corn. “This child had better like to garden,” she mutters. “Because next year I need to get seed into the ground a good month earlier than I did this season.”

She shakes her head at the maíz and turns away. There isn’t a blessed thing she can do to speed it to harvest. She moves on to her produce garden, which lies closer to the marsh. At least the squash is doing nicely.

When she returns to the house, she’s dragging a half-full bushel basket of fat green-striped squash behind her. The kitchen is empty. Ramón and Gerald are in the hayfield in the valley bottom, turning the windrows they’d scythed that morning.

Suzanna sets aside the squash she thinks Ramón will need for the evening meal, wraps an apron over her dress, and begins washing and slicing the remaining vegetables into strips for drying. “At least I can do this much,” she mutters.

When she’s filled the largest of Ramón’s wooden bowls, she carries it to the ramada that shelters the woodpile behind the house. There’s just enough space beside the stacked wood for the woven-twig drying racks Gerald constructed for her. She arranges the strips of squash on the racks, covers them with a light cotton cloth to discourage the flies, and returns to the kitchen.

It’s almost noon. Suzanna’s feeling both hungry and restless. She pokes in the cupboard to see if she can tell what Ramón has planned for the midday meal. A cloth-wrapped stack of corn tortillas and a bowl of mashed beans. A plate containing the small tomatoes she harvested yesterday. The few that were ripe. She shakes her head in disgust. She’ll be drying green tomatoes before long.

She studies the tortillas, lifts them from the shelf, and turns to the fireplace. The coals are carefully banked, conserving their heat until a fire is needed again. She can at least get it going, ready for Ramón when he and Gerald come in. She sets the tortillas on the table and crouches beside the hearth.

Her father did her no favors when he banned her from her mother’s kitchen, she reflects as she scrapes ash from the live coals and feeds the resulting glow with thin strips of juniper bark. Regardless of what he thought of her mother’s morals and the value of a girl learning Latin, her father’s choices definitely stunted her development in wifely duties.

The baby kicks just then, jabbing a foot into Suzanna’s ribs, and she dimples self-consciously and pats her belly. Well, not all wifely duties. And she certainly knows how to sew, though it isn’t her favorite task.

She sits back on her haunches and studies the kitchen’s hand-hewn work table and food cupboards. She learned to sew by observing a neighbor woman and then asking Encarnación for occasional advice. Surely she could lean the rudiments of cookery the same way. Her lack of ability here makes her so dependent.

It’s also hard on the men. Ramón never seems to sit down. And his kitchen duties reduce his ability to assist Gerald outdoors. Assistance Suzanna can’t give, especially now that she’s pregnant.

In the fireplace, tiny flames lick at the narrow strands of juniper bark. Suzanna adds a few pieces of kindling, then layers thicker pieces over them. At least she can build a fire. She looks around the room. The water bucket is nearly empty. She adjusts a piece of wood to better catch the flames and pushes herself to her feet.

As she crosses the yard to the well, she sees the men in the field below, heading toward the house, the wooden windrow rakes over their shoulders. Gerald’s hat is pushed back on his head, his long stride shortened to keep pace with Ramón, who waves a hand at the remaining grassland and turns his head to say something to the taller man. Gerald laughs, then places his hand companionably on Ramón’s shoulder. They stop and turn to look back at their handiwork.

Suzanna lowers her bucket into the well. As she hauls it up again, her stomach rumbles. The men are certainly taking their time. Once they get their tools put away, they’ll still need to clean up. She turns toward the cabin. In the meantime, she might be able to warm the tortillas without burning them. And heat the mashed beans.

Back in the kitchen, she finds the smallest of the cooking pots, scrapes the beans into it, and sets it to heat at the edge of the fire. Then she positions the cast-iron skillet and its three-footed supporting grate over the flames and goes to the cupboard for a small pot of lard.

She drops a spoonful of the grease into the skillet and watches it slowly begin to soften. Suzanna yawns. The fat looks as if it’ll sit there all day, doing nothing. This is why she dislikes cooking. There’s so much sitting and waiting. She pokes at the fire with a stick and repositions a burning log so it’s more fully under the grate and the pan.

Finally the fat heats and liquefies. It sizzles busily and Suzanna nods in satisfaction and drops a tortilla into the black skillet. But the extra flame has made the pan hotter than she realized. The flat yellow tortilla buckles sharply in response and the fat pops furiously, then turns into a smoky haze.

Suzanna jumps up, grabs a wet towel from the counter, and darts back to the fire. Smoke fills the room. She leans down, tosses the towel over the skillet handle, and yanks it away from the flames. As she pulls, heat sears through the wet towel, stabbing her palm.

“I swear!” she yelps, jerking away. The skillet clatters to the floor and the charcoaled tortilla tumbles out beside it. Suzanna is doubled over, gasping in pain, when the men come through the door from the main room.

Gerald leaps toward her. “Are you all right? Let me see.”

Suzanna collapses onto the floor. “How stupid of me,” she gasps. “I know heat goes right through a wet towel.”

Gerald reaches gently for her hand. Two red welts bisect her palm. Ramón appears at Gerald’s elbow with a dripping cloth. Gerald wraps it around Suzanna’s hand, then lifts her to her feet and guides her to a bench beside the table. “Just sit,” he says soothingly. “I don’t think it’s very bad.”

She nods, ashamed of her outburst, embarrassed by her stupidity. “I know to use a dry towel,” she says again.

“We all make mistakes,” Gerald says soothingly.

“Not in the kitchen.” She raises her head, her mouth trembling. “I’m the only woman I know who makes mistakes in the kitchen.”

Ramón has placed the skillet and tortilla on the work counter and is now crouched over the fire, moving the pot of beans away from the licking flames. He half turns as he wraps a dry towel around the pot. “I almost killed my brothers and myself once,” he says. “I had no sisters at that time. My parents were called away and I was assigned to cook while they were gone. I used a haunch of pork that had gone bad.” He rises, places the pot on the wooden counter, and stirs it gently. “These are nicely warmed.”

He returns to the fire and uses a thick piece of kindling to maneuver the three-legged grate away from the center of the flames. Over his shoulder he says, “I decided the meat simply needed more seasoning to cover the bad taste.” He rises and lifts the skillet from the counter. As he wipes it out with a small towel, he shakes his head. “I didn’t want to take the time to check the rabbit snares or go fishing.”

He leans to place the skillet on the grate. “We were all sick as dogs when my parents returned.” He chuckles. “And soon after they returned, I was also sore on my backside. My father was very angry and he was a firm believer in the dicho that says la letra con sangre entra.”

Gerald raises an eyebrow. “The word enters better with blood?”

Ramón grins. “The parents’ words. There seems to be some truth to that saying. Never since then have I forgotten to throw out bad meat.”

Suzanna chuckles and rearranges the cloth over her palm. Her fingertips tingle with incipient blisters. She winces. “My hand will certainly remember to reach for a dry towel when I need to lift something hot from the fire.”

You’ve just read the fifth chapter of the forthcoming novel Not My Father’s House by Loretta Miles Tollefson. You can order it now from your favorite bookstore or online retailer, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Books2Read.

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