Sebastian peered into the shadows lurking behind the houses, the trees, and around every corner he passed. He sensed the encroaching darkness alive with mystery and a million little fears that could disperse in one brilliant flash of understanding. Although he was sometimes afraid of the dark, at that moment he was at peace with it. It was a lonely ghost that reminded him he had danced with death once, and that perhaps he would do so again.
He thought of the black haired old lady from the hospital. She existed only in the shadows now, but he could feel her near him at times, watching him, guiding him when he couldn't be sure where he was going. Perhaps he would show his grandmother the picture he'd drawn so that she could see for herself the ashen face, and the bizarre black hair that crowned it. Perhaps he would tell her about the strange conversation they'd had at the hospital. He peered more intently into the darkness, and quickened his pace.
Standing upon his grandmother's porch minutes later, he instantly knew that the strange turn she'd taken had deepened and twisted around their world like a thick and thorny vine, choking out what little normalcy remained. He noted the intense glow of candlelight through the window, and a myriad of boxes and packing paper strewn all over the porch, making it look like she'd either been shopping or was preparing to move. He sniffed the air and realized the delicious smell he'd detected by the mailbox was stronger than ever. He entered the house to find that most of the floor was covered with additional boxes and paper. The rocking chair, where Lola had previously spent most of her time, was overflowing with the same, and on almost every flat surface candles of every size were burning brightly. Squat orange candles on the coffee table, and thick white pillar candles on the window sills. On the kitchen table red tapered candles were aflame, and the melted wax dripping down the stems looked like thick tears of blood.
Sebastian felt the fragrant heat all around and permeating through him. He'd never seen so many candles burning at once. The light they created was alive, and it moved through the space like a mystical breeze, a spirit of warmth.
Lola was in the kitchen hunched over a large boiling pot, stirring frantically and muttering to herself. Clouds of steam wafted up past her face toward the ceiling, and with her red hair sticking out, she looked like a witch at her cauldron, concocting a poisonous brew. She was so absorbed, that she didn't notice Sebastian standing in the middle of the room watching her. Over the counter were scattered bowls and pots and pans of all sizes. He'd never seen the kitchen such a mess.
"Abuela, what are you doing?" he finally asked.
She looked up with a start. Her glasses were fogged over, but she didn't bother cleaning them. "What does it look like I'm doing?"
He took another step forward, drawn by the enticing aroma. "You're cooking," he said.
"Bingo!" Lola replied, and she resumed stirring, her head bobbing furiously as she worked the spoon round and round.
Sebastian stepped in closer. "Mom's going to be really mad at you."
"And what will she do?" Lola replied with a bright cackle. "Send me to bed without my dinner?" Then she lifted her spoon and waited for three thick drips to land on her palm. She slurped these up, then puckered and smacked her lips. She pondered her taste buds for a moment before adding a pinch of something from one of several small bowls she had lined up on the counter, and stirred it in. Then she turned to Sebastian. "Taste this sauce and tell me what you think," she commanded.
Sebastian obediently walked forward with his hand extended, and Lola allowed three thick drops of brown sauce to puddle into it as well. He glanced at her shyly before slurping it up, and then paused, somewhat confused. He'd never tasted anything quite like it. It was rich and savory, sweet and spicy all at once, and the flavors lingered like a beautiful melody on his tongue. It was, in short, delicious.
"Well, what do you think?" she asked.
"It's good," Sebastian said, craving more.
She propped her hands on her hips. "That's all you have to say? Just good?"
"It's very good," he said, and he was prepared to take it further and tell her it was the best thing he'd ever tasted in his life, when he caught sight of something on the counter behind her. Piled high on a large platter were several chunky prehistoric looking bones, something ancient people might've used to bang on their crude drums.
Noticing his interest, she said, "Those are lamb shanks. I would've made cabrito, but it's hard to find at supermarkets around here. It used to be easy to find on the island, but these days they tell me that it's almost impossible to get. I'll have to go downtown and order it special one day."
"What is cabrito?" Sebastian asked, unable to tear his eyes away from the strange looking meat.
"Goat," she replied.
"You eat… goats? The animal that goes Bleeeaaaaat?" he asked, making the same sound he'd performed for Keith and his gang a few weeks ago.
"Of course I do. You come from a long line of goat lovers. Your great grandmother taught me how to make goat. Actually, she didn't really teach me. I learned how to make it the same way I learned how to walk and talk and climb trees. You see, back on the island learning was natural and easy. It didn't require a whole lot of effort like it does here, it just happened in the same way orchids grow in the jungle all by themselves without a gardener or a greenhouse."
Sebastian tore his eyes away from the lamb shanks to look up into his grandmother's face. "But…you…you really eat goats?" he asked again.
Lola was annoyed by her grandson's incredulousness. "I've been eating it all my life, but the first time I tried it, I was even younger than you and…" She stopped to consider him with a wary eye. "No, I don't think I should tell you this story. You may not like it very much."
"Why not?" he asked.
"Because it requires a strong stomach."
Sebastian threw his shoulders back. After his bold act of defiance at the afterschool program, he felt pretty tough. "I can handle it," he said. Lola thought about it for a moment, and then turned the flame down on the stove. She began to tell her story with a voice that was as powerful and vibrant as the flavors that still lingered on Sebastian's tongue.
My oldest sister Tamara, may she rest in peace, was getting married, and we were planning a big feast to celebrate her wedding. She was the first one to find a husband, and my parents had four other girls to marry off, so they were eager to get the show rolling. Money was short, but they ordered a beautiful white wedding dress for her, and lovely yellow dresses for the rest of us. My mother and I spent countless hours making the capias, intricate lacy favors, each one embroidered by hand with the date of the wedding and the names of the bride and groom. We had to make enough for two hundred guests, and every night after the others went to sleep we worked on them, sometimes until the sun came up the next morning.
The wedding preparations were going very well, and everyone was excited about the big party that was planned for after the ceremony. I was excited too until the day before the wedding when I discovered the little cabrito tied to a tree a few yards from the house. He was a baby, and the fur around his ears was still soft so I knew this was probably the first time he'd been separated from his mother. I knelt down to nuzzle him, but while I whispered comforting words to my new little friend, I heard the sound of the blade shrieking against the wetting stone in the kitchen.
By the time my father appeared with his sharpened knife, I was convinced that this was the most precious creature that had ever lived and that, wedding or no wedding, he should be spared. I tried to persuade my father of the same with tears and a fair amount of begging, but he wasn't moved. He pried me away from the goat, and after saying a brief prayer, he took firm hold of the small animal with one hand and readied his knife with the other.
But before he could strike I threw myself on the ground. "No Papi, please don't kill my Cabrito," I cried.
"We can't have a wedding, and serve nothing but rice and beans," he said. "Can you imagine how upset your sister will be if we do that?"
"I don't care about the wedding. All I care about is my cabrito."
"Get inside," my father commanded, pointing his knife toward the house. "I paid good money for this goat, and you're making this more difficult than it needs to be." And he was right because now the cabrito was struggling against my father, and his eyes were fearful as though he finally understood what was going to happen to him. But my father managed to get a firm grasp of him again.
I was preparing to go into the house so that I wouldn't have to see him die, but at that moment, the little cabrito looked at me. His eyes were pleading with me to accept his fate, and to stay with him and give him strength - to be present, nothing more.
"Papa," I said. "Let me stay, and I promise that I won't cry anymore."
He thought about this, and when he saw that I was indeed calmer, he allowed me to place my hand on the cabrito's back which instantly calmed him too. After one swift swipe of the blade, I felt the cabrito start and shudder beneath my hand. Blood poured from his throat in a thick stream, creating a red river at our feet. As the flow lessened, his front knees buckled and after several minutes he collapsed in my father's arms. I wanted to cry when I saw him lying motionless on the ground, but I held my tears.
The next day, I brushed my hair, put on my new dress, and went outside to the place where the carcass was slowly roasting. The aroma was intoxicating, and I paused for a moment to savor it. And then, when I thought no one was watching, I took a handful of the beautiful capias my mother and I had made and tossed them into the fire. They flared up and turned into ash within seconds. Little did I know that my mother was watching me from the kitchen window and she scolded me severely. She told me that for that misdeed she would think long and hard about giving me a wedding when my turn came. I cried a river of tears, and my mother was angry with me for quite some time, but it was worth it.
When Lola finished her story, she turned her attention back to the pot simmering on the stove.
"But I don't understand Abuela Lola," Sebastian said. "Why did you throw the capias in the fire? What difference did it make if the little goat was already dead?"
"I wanted to thank him with a sacrifice of my own, and mine was by far the easiest to make," Lola said as she sprinkled more seasoning into the pot.
Cecilia Samartin is the critically acclaimed author of several internationally bestselling novels which have been translated into eighteen languages. Her work in the Latino community as a social worker and therapist, as well as her own immigrant/refugee background have largely inspired her writing. She was born in revolutionary Havana and grew up in Los Angeles where she currently lives with her husband.
Learn more by visiting www.ceciliasamartin.com.