It was the middle of the afternoon and Mamá looked at her with commanding eyes. Pastora had been watching tv for most part of the day and her great grandmother, the head of “la familia”, disliked that. Pastora knew what her great grandmother, with chocolate skin, gray short hair and mesmerizing brown eyes was thinking. It was that time. So she took the controller and turned off the TV. The anxiety inside her made her heart palpitate fast. Still, she did not let Mamá notice, she had no other choice. It was tradition, and of all the children in her huge family, she was the chosen one.
Pastora, who shared her great grandmother’s dark brown eyes, followed her silently to the kitchen. There was a gas stove at the end; on top of it, aluminum pots, Mamá’s favorite cooking instruments where the magic happened. Mamá stopped in front of the counter. She had green bell peppers, onions, garlic and a whole chicken; just a few of the needed ingredients. Pastora looked at them with fear of what they meant. Her great grandmother had been preparing her for this day for the past ten years. Pastora felt an ache deep in her soul, thought of her fourteen siblings and how lucky they were for not having to bear the burden she was going to for the rest of her life.
No, this cannot be my fate, she said to herself terrified.
Mamá turned to her, “Today you will cook for us. The great aunts are coming; they will be your judges. Before cooking, you must make sofrito, our family’s secret ingredient. You know what you must do. If you fail…” She paused as if the words where too hard to say. Mamá inhaled deeply, “I must step down and another will take my place, and you must leave our family and your descendants can never know of us.”
The price was too high, but if she turned away now she would face the same fate. Pastora nodded in agreement. Mamá walked away and Pastora left the kitchen with a basket on her hand to fetch the rest of the ingredients.
The ground was covered in wet muddy grass; it had been raining all morning. The slope was slippery, but she knew where to step. At the edge of the old two story house with a zinc roof top with little bushes of small sweet peppers. Pastora took the ones that where green and red and moved on toward the cilantro. A few feet away was the one ingredient her cooking could not be without, recao a wild cilantro. It grew wild in the humid ground; its lush dark green lanced shaped leaves had the aroma of pungent coriander. During rainy days the farm would smell of it and Pastora loved it, it was intoxicating. She often found herself walking toward it, as if mesmerized by some power she could not understand. Her siblings called her weird; they said it was just the normal smell of a plant. But for her it was more, it was her family’s legacy as it only grew in their farm.
She knelt down not caring to get her pants all dirty and wet. Pastora selected the longest darkest leaf and inhaled the aroma. Joy filled her heart, smelled it again and the fears of what’s to come disappeared. Pastora knew this was her destiny and she would embrace it. The first time her Mamá took her to that place, she was with her sister, only seven years old. Mamá gave her both a leaf and asked to smell it. Her sister found it too strong and unbearable, but not her. It was just right and enjoyable. That day was her first day in the kitchen.
Quickly she collected all the leaves she needed and headed to the kitchen. She chopped, peeled and put everything in the food processor. The smells filled the whole house. Pastora started cooking what she was going to serve her great aunts, a simple meal of chicken stew, white rice and beans. After a few hours everything was ready. She prepared the table, placed the food, and in a small plate put a sample of the sofrito for them to smell. They entered the dining room, they were the sisters of her great grandmother. Mamá sat at the head of the table, by her side was her older sister Monín, followed by Aparicia, who was always smiling; Julin, Guani and Carmen, who looked just like Mamá, sat at the other side; Pastora sat at the other end waiting for her judgement. They smelled and tasted the sofrito without expressing anything, except for Aparicia who gave her a wink. The women moved to the food, served themselves and ate.
When they were done, one by one looked at Mamá. She looked at them as if she could read their minds. Her heart stopped, she felt like she needed oxygen. Her fate was in their hands and nothing could be done. The seriousness of their eyes upon her sent chills down her spine. They all stood up. All is lost, she thought, they are going to walk away. Mamá and her great aunts turned to her and in a respectful way they all vowed to her. Pastora inhale deeply and straighten her dorso. From that moment on she would be known as Mamá and would take the reins of the family after her great grandmother passed away. In charge not only of the decisions of the family but also of making the sofrito for them and passing it on to her own successor.
This short story was inspired by: Daily Prompt: Ingredients