A heavenly smell -- and big surprise!
Rebellious was not a word anyone would use to describe me. I was as far from rebellious as an obedient kid could get. I had a strong sense of right and wrong and I worked hard to be good enough to -- well, just be good enough. I didn’t often participate in anything I knew would get me into trouble and I was nowhere near as adventurous as my siblings, Hannahberry Finn and her merry minions. Trouble seemed to follow them like dirt chasing a West Texas dust storm.
And I didn’t like trouble. Or dirt.
But nothing is more exciting than a mystery whose existence wakens all senses. And for me, on that bright, laughter-filled day, the tug of warm, foreign aromas proved to be a mystery better left unsolved.
I was eight years old and our cousins from Laredo were visiting. I couldn’t have been happier. An extraordinary feeling overcame me when I was with them, as if magic danced in the air when they were around, like pixie dust being sprinkled all over me. Aunt Cleatis, my father’s sister, Uncle Richard and their five kids had loaded up their car and driven to our house after work on a Friday evening. We lived in Corpus Christi, and they were going to spend the weekend and then take my grandmother, who had been staying with us, back home.
Gramma Cata, my father’s mother, was a tiny, mystical woman. Her touch, soft as a dove’s feather, could make a plant bloom from a stick or cause a wild bird to sing, or calm a hurt child. She had been a widow since before my father turned two and had chosen to live out the remainder of her life with her mother, her sisters, and then her daughter. She was never comfortable being away from home so the fact she had spent an entire week with us was a memory we would cherish. But, the week was over and we had had to deal with the realization she’d be gone again. Having the whole family together helped blur the disappointment.
Laredo will always appear on the map in my heart. Time seemed to slow down, a change in tempo even a child could sense. The promise of mañana, tomorrow, seemed to hang in the air like a colorful kite, drifting in the breeze. When I was there, Gramma Cata let me drink coffee, syrupy with cream and sugar. I relished her flour tortillas, hot off the gridle, slathered in butter. To this day I have not found a tortilla as airy, as heavenly as hers. Each bite melted on my tongue and landed softly in my stomach, until it was layered in ribbons of contentment. We played all day with our cousins, out in the sun-drenched yard, squealing as we chased each other, running until our parched throats screamed for relief. Then we’d burst through the back door and gulp down tall glasses of iced tea, sweetened with sugar and Mexican limes.
Of the many things I treasured about visiting our Laredo family, it was the fiesta, the celebration that took place whenever we were there, that I loved most. There was always a feast with plenty of barbecued meats, Mexican beans, Gramma Cata's potato salad, and tortillas. As darkness dimmed the daylight, someone would turn on party lights, and crank up the music. Sweet tea flowed, and so did the cerveza. The air throbbed with an energy I never felt at home. My father had grown up in an Hispanic culture that seeped into the tastes, the smells, the sounds that were bigger and bolder than those around our house. His great-grandmother had come from Mexico and his grandmother, her daughter, had married a Spaniard. An atmosphere of lace fans, old villas, and precise manners folded into the music and laughter that surrounded us when we were together.
Even though we were at our house instead of theirs in Laredo, we would still have a fiesta. Uncle Richard brought cabrito, a Mexican delicacy, one of Daddy’s favorites. Cabrito is goat, baby goat, but I didn't know that at the time. All I knew was Daddy loved cabrito. When primed with plenty of beer, he’d often talk about opening a cabrito-only restaurant when he retired. He’d have a cabrito ranchito with lots of little goats, from which only the fattest, most delectable would be chosen. They’d all live out in the country, Daddy, Mama, and the goats, on twenty-five acres of land away from the city, but close enough that people would drive out for a meal. The little restaurant would not be big, only room enough for five or six families, and people would line up, patiently waiting their turn for a table, because the food would be that good.
But his dream was lost on us kids as we ran around the yard, laughing and squealing, snaking between parents in lawn chairs.
It was summer in Corpus, hot and humid, and our little frame house had no air-conditioning, so all the windows were open. Laughing and playing, and drinking too much sweet tea, had taken its toll; even though we were supposed to stay outside, I had to use the bathroom. No one saw me as I jerked open the screen door and disappeared into the house. Once inside, a strange new smell greeted me, the irresistible aroma tugging me into the kitchen. Time slowed as I closed my eyes and let the scent overpower me. The commotion coming from outside faded away and I felt like I was floating through the air, nose first, toward an invisible force within the oven.
Opening my eyes so I could find the source, I first saw my mom’s famous pinto bean recipe boiling on the stove. But the aroma saturating the air around me was something I had never smelled before. Like the feel of a weighted blanket against my skin the smell pressed, lightly, into me with warm, savory comfort trimmed in ribbon both spicy and sweet. The allure was more than I could stand.
As I stood, mouth watering, in front of that oven, I knew for a fact I was not allowed to open the door. How many times, I wondered, had I been told to never open the oven door when something was cooking inside? How many times had Momma explained that opening the door made the inside heat, which was supposed to remain constant, plummet, causing a cake to fall or a roast to not be cooked properly? Enough times to know better, was the answer. I knew better, all right; I just couldn’t help myself. I took one more lengthy whiff, leaned over, opened the oven door . . .
And got the shock of my life.
There, inside the oven from which sprang the divine aroma, was a roasting demon’s head staring straight at me. I jumped back, recoiling from the fragrant but grisly sight, and fell over one of the dinette chairs. That chair hit another chair with enough force to shove the table into the wall, issuing a clatter that could be heard up and down the block. Momma arrived first and, not yet seeing the open oven door, grabbed my shoulders, looking me over, making sure I was ok. Daddy ran in behind her, took one look at me and one look at the oven and demanded, without speaking, to know what had happened.
The few seconds that passed were enough to soften my shock and unleash my tears. I was crying because I had found the head of some creature in our oven, and I was crying because I knew my father was going to kill me. My father could impersonate an Army sergeant when it came to rules. We didn’t have to understand them, we only had to follow them and, when we didn’t, he did not hesitate to dish out punishment. I wasn’t supposed to be in the house, and I wasn’t supposed to be scrounging around the kitchen which I knew was off limits. I didn’t have to wonder about my fate, I knew it. My life would be cut short because I had been caught up in an encounter I couldn't even explain.
Imagine the further shock when my father burst into laughter! That’s the scene the other adults found as they rushed in: chairs and table strewn around the small kitchen with me, head in Momma’s arms, Momma, staring up at Daddy, and Daddy chortling, pointing toward the demon’s cave. I don’t even remember anything past that point. I think I was so astonished to still be alive that I must have passed out. Later Daddy explained what I had stumbled upon. Like barbacoa (roasted beef cheeks), meat from the cabrito’s cheek is very tasty, he said. Even better, perhaps because there are less of them to go around, the goat’s brain, when cooked the right way, is considered by some to be a real delicacy.
I have never found out whether a baby goat’s cheeks or brain are delicious to the taste. I have never eaten cabrito. I hear from many that barbecued cabrito is a delightful meat that has become more popular in recent years. Doesn’t matter to me; I’ll never know. I can’t even think about cabrito. When I try, even after all these years, all I see is that demon head in its demon cave, staring straight into my eyes.
After that escapade, it was a long time before I broke another rule.