MIKAYLA VIEIRA RIBEIRO
Avó’s garden greeted Gabriela after three years away from the island. Palms waved in the breeze threatening to knock some cocos down. Purple and orange trinitaria bunched together, tempting kolibri and other flying neighbors to come by for a closer look. Faya lobi lined the pavement waiting to be transformed into childhood bracelets once again. The cashu and papaya trees in the back were still green but promised sweet crunchiness soon. There was a patchwork of pots with clippings and herbs covering all untouched bits of dirt. Yerb’i hole. Oregano. Lamun grass. Laurel. Beyísima snaked all over the lot next door, smothering what ruins remained of the old house in a green and pink foliage blanket. But the vines would never be allowed to cross over the fence.
Every morning and every evening Avó came out of her kitchen, synchronizing her daily rhythm to attend to the needs of the garden. She greeted each plant one by one because who else did she have to talk with these days? The scantily dressed telenovela stars on TV hardly minded what suggestion she had to offer. The radio jockeys powered on with too much reggaeton regardless of her protests. And her family… They loved her of course, but everyone was always too busy with their own lives. No one had time for an old widow’s worries. The plants however craved her attention. As she sprinkled water over each one, they stood up taller as if to give thanks for her hydrating touch. The arid island was not always kind to new growth, nor old growth for that matter. So, it was up to the young and old to take care of each other.
Today Avó was making pickled pigs’ ears because Christmas was around the corner, and no home could go without it. As she washed the meat, she heard someone through the front door.
“Hello, is anyone home?” a voice called through the ironwork.
“Mi vida, I didn’t know you were coming home this year!” Avó exclaimed as she ran for the keys. It had been so long since her granddaughter had flown off to The Netherlands along with many of the island’s supposed sharpest minds. They always promised to return. “Mi ta bai bini” they said. “I’m going, to come back.” And most truly believed it. But life had a way of justifying compromises from even the most determined patriots. Going and coming were daily bread here. There was no contradiction. Above all, Avó was proud of her nine granddaughters all chasing their dreams far away. When she was their age… Well, those were different times.
“Tell me, how are you doing mi dushi? Let me take a good look at you. Have you lost weight?” she said, wrapping her arms around Gabriela in a deep hug.
“You came just in time!” said Avó, handing her a red onion and a cutting board. “Now, tell me everything.”
Gabriela had not eaten animal flesh in many months but thought this might not be the moment to inform her grandmother. Her youngest cousin had recently announced that she was vegan, at which their grandmother had made chicken instead of goat stew. For another time. Instead, Gabriela settled into the familiar role of cooking and chisme assistant, tearing up only slightly.
“Ay Avó, I missed you so much! School is going well.” My Dutch is not as good as I thought. “It took a long time to settle in, but I am finding my way.” I may never settle fully, always trying to plant my feet across places. “I have many friends.” Or konosí I should say.
“And Angel? How is Angel?” Avó asked.
“Ahh Angel seems to be doing much better!” Gabriela smiled. Angel was also from the islands but had grown up all over. When they first met in The Netherlands, like most people, Gabriela had thought Angel was a man. But Angel was just Angel. Their bubbly energy could disarm even the most jaded urbanites and heal the most wounded scars. When Gabriela felt empty, it was Angel who could ground her body and replenish her spirit. They could charm anyone. But for some reason, they found particular peace in Gabi’s ways of moving through the world. So over time they became family, her home across the ocean.
Occasionally, Gabi remembered to call home on Sundays when everyone was back from church. On one such call, Angel had serenaded Avó with their meng of Papiamentu and Spanish. Every family on the island had distinct ways to code switch through all the languages present in a household. There was a place for everybody in any home’s language landscape. But how suavely one could maneuver through the web of voices determined whether you were being laughed at or with. In the Franco family, Papiamentu and Spanish were neutral territories perfect for chit-chat. Portuguese was reserved for the older folks. And everyone took care to roll their eyes in English or Dutch when Avó repeated herself, so she wouldn’t pick up on the lack of respect. Needless to say, Avó had found Angel sufficiently charming, even if they seemed somewhat feminine. Anyways, she wanted to see great grandkids soon. The only thing missing now was an engagement.
“I gave Angel the medicine just like you explained, and it seems to be working,” Gabriela said.
“Danki Dios. It is such a shame for young ones to get the illness. You all are meant to enjoy life and make many more mistakes before time is up,” Avó lamented. Having heard this speech many times before, Gabriela knew what was coming next. “Even my dear amorzinho was taken too early. He was only fifty when it came for him. I gave him all the laurel oil we still had saved from holidays in Madeira, in our hometown. And he chewed Papaya leaves like those from here swear by. We went to all the doctors for x-rays and protective rings. It seemed as though–”
“Wait! Avó, what do you mean? What doctor prescribes protective rings?” Gabriela asked. No matter how mundane the addition might seem, Gabi’s attention piqued. Whenever a fresh detail was added to Avó’s stories, it meant some layer of guarded secrets was peeling off.
“Ay Gabriela, you know there are many kinds of doctors here. I am a church-going woman, but when you need a miracle you are not going to be picky about whose medicine works best. I don’t believe in brujas, but that they fly I have no doubt. And it is wise not to disrespect any of the greater powers around here. You never know who you will meet afterwards” she said, flicking her wrists up.
“Anyways we were desperate. All our men who had worked at Isla were slowly getting sick. For your Avô nothing worked, although some of the others got better.
“Are you done with the onions yet? Here, chop up the pika,” Avó passed over a madame jeanette pepper with several cloves of garlic. She took the pork off the stove and strained it, immune to the boiling water splashing on her wrists. She let the ears sit by the open window to cool off.
“Avó, do you think people were getting sick because they were working at the refinery?” Gabriela asked, already imagining the potential for legal justice. Growing up, everyone had always said Gabi would become a great lawyer because she scored well in school, especially in history and languages. She had also believed this. That is until she started university in The Netherlands, and realized how underprepared she was for Dutch legal study. It would take a lifetime for her to understand what other students could skim in a night. So, she had decided to study pedagogy instead, figuring that she could learn better in practice. But again, it was tricky teaching students who seemed to know more than her about everything. Now she studied computer science, because the program was in English, and she figured she could make a living from it. She doubted she’d finish anytime soon, working on the side as she was. And until then student loans were racking up. But still she maintained a sense of faith in public systems. Surely those responsible for a widespread health crisis could be held accountable.
“Gabriela, that is not the point. Isla was good to us, gave us jobs, gave us a new life,” said Avó.
“Hmm.. why do you think some people got better and others didn’t?” Gabi asked.
“They say medicine works best if it is from your people. That’s why the papaya leaves’ power only works for those from here. The laurel oil only activates in our blood. And paracetamol covers the pain of all those touched by big companies, which is everyone.” Avó had explained this to Gabi last year when she had begun searching for remedies for Angel. Avó had given her a list of herbs and recipes she had learned from her grandmother but had warned Gabi that they would only work for those with the same ancestors. In particular, she had mentioned the healing powers of oil squeezed from laurel leaves.
“Deep in the Laurisilva forest, the largest and oldest of its kind, mountain women like your great-great grandmother collected fresh laurel branches. At home they would grind the leaves and let them soak in olive oil for several weeks. Once ready, they could rub the oil on any joint, and pain would melt away. For especially nasty illnesses, people would sip a few drops of the oil every day until they got better. And they did always get better.”
It had sparked the exact kind of hope Gabriela and Angel needed at the time. Angel had done a DNA test and learned to their surprise that they were 43% Iberian. Gabi had considered this a sign that her grandmother’s potions might work for Angel. And so, she had started cooking everything with bay leaves. Bay leaf into the soups, into the oatmeal, into the coffee. There was no laurel leaf oil in Amsterdam, but she figured the same goodness would seep into any food boiled long enough.
“Mi vida, I think the meat is cool enough to handle now. Here, you take these.” Avó passed two bowls and started hacking. Gabriela followed her example, sliding the knife through the flesh and pushing past cartilage as fat jelly squeezed out. The finished strips went into the empty bowl.
“You cannot find food like this in The Netherlands,” she sighed.
“What? Súlt? Is there no pork over there?” Avó asked.
“There is,” although not at the Moroccon butcher, which was the only place Gabriela bought meat when she did cook it.
“Well, I’ve never seen pigs’ ears. But even if there were, it wouldn’t taste the same. Even if you use all the same ingredients, it feels different. Something is always missing.”
“That’s because food is not real over there,” Avó said.
“What! What do you mean?” Gabriela chuckled.
“The food there comes in plastic, and it all has the same flavor. Peppers taste like water. Water tastes like air. Real food needs to speak to its neighbors so they can learn the secrets of a long, tasty life.”
“Oh really? And how does food speak to its neighbors?” Gabriela asked. She could sense Avó getting worked up and encouraged her to carry on. It was all part of the game they liked to play. It was as good a way as any to spend an afternoon.
“Animals inherit knowledge from their mothers before birth, and then they talk amongst each other in languages most of us don’t understand. They share stories about their day’s adventures, and how nice that one old lady was to them. If they live happy lives filled with lots of stories, they die deliciously. Plants on the other hand whisper to each other underground. Their roots tangle together exchanging ancient stories about survival and beauty. If the roots only find copies of themselves, they don’t have many stories to listen to. Or when everything is new growth, the ancient stories are forgotten.”
“Avó, what kind of ancient dramas would plants be gossiping about?” asked Gabriela.
“Many things, but not dramas. When you have lived long enough there is no need for drama anymore. You just want your family to be happy and healthy, and you want to see great grandchildren,” Avó said with a straight face.
Not falling for the bait, Gabriela continued, “then what are these ancient plants talking about?”
“They share the secrets to long life, to killing off illness, to deep healing.” Avó started mixing the pork with the onions and garlic and spices.
“So does this mean that GMO plants or monocrops won’t work as a cure against illnesses?” Gabriela asked slowly.
“I don’t know what you mean with all that… but it’s true only plants born from old growth will know the secrets of a long life. All others might look the same, or even taste similar, but there will always be something missing.” As she said this, she added cloves and laurel to the pork.
“It’s like laurel. We never eat it, and yet when it’s not there we feel its presence missing. Súlt would never taste right if we didn’t add laurel. And laurel cannot heal anyone unless it learned those secrets from old growth.” Gabriela didn’t want to hear more, but Avó was on a roll now.
“It’s like my mother used to say, deep in the Laurisilva forest, mountain women collected laurel…”
Avó’s mind traveled back to the same moments in time more often now. While her mind fondly remembered less lonely days, her body moved around the kitchen on autopilot after so many years of repeating the same motions. Gabi had picked up the same ability to let her thoughts wander, while her body instinctively responded to Avó’s repeating stories.
“…they could rub the oil on any joint, and the pain would melt away. For especially nasty illnesses, people would sip a few drops of the oil until they got better. And they always got better as long as the oil came from the old forest’s bay leaves.” Gabriela had never heard this last part of the story. But before she could ponder why that might be, her cell phone rang. Avó was busy submerging the pork in vinegar. She picked up without looking.
“Bon dia, with Gabriela Franco.”
“Hey Gabi, it’s me, Angel.”
“Amor, kon ta? I’m at my grandmothers right now and we were just speaking about you!”
“Is that Angel?” Avó chimed in. “Send him my saludos.”
“Avó says ‘Hi’. How are things going?”
“I’m okay. Mas o menos. I’ve kept your plants alive so far. But actually…”
“Even the herbs? You know what divas they are. If you forget to water them for even a day they droop and dry-up,” Gabriela reminded.
“The cilantro and basil are doing just fine. It’s me that’s not doing so well. I don’t know what’s happening, but since you left, I’ve got this sharp pain in my chest again, and the coughing doesn’t stop. Everything feels heavy.” There was no usual playfulness in their voice.
“Oh Angel, are you okay?” Gabi asked. What a pointless question, but Angel sounded serious.
“I don’t know. I’m a bit shaken…But I don’t want to worry you. I’m sure it’ll pass. I just missed you.”
“I miss you too. Have you had any of the sopi I left for you in the fridge?”
Avó could tell something was up. She knew what concern sounded like in any language. She stopped pouring the Súlt into jars and raised her arms up, chin pointed, to ask Gabi what was going on. The ears steeped in pink brine looked morbid now. Gabi just shook her head.
“Tell him to make some caldo. Whatever it is, there is nothing that chicken soup can’t help with,” Avó advised. Gabriela just nodded and kept pacing across the tiles.
“Yes, thank you. I just had some for dinner, along with the laurel tea you left as well,” Angel said,
“And have you called the doctor? Chest pain sounds serious,” and then Gabriela muttered the words they were both thinking, “maybe even a relapse.”
“Yeah, but you know how it is here. They told me to take some paracetamol and rest. If it gets worse by next week I can call again. So that’s what I’m doing. But I still feel nervous. Like something is about to happen, and I’m not ready. Who knows, maybe it’s just the winter blues.” Dutch winters meant months of uninterrupted darkness. They could cripple one’s spirit. The sun never truly rose, smothered in a dull gray sky. The rain, a constant drizzle, never cleansing the air and leaving the smell of fresh dirt in its wake. But the worst was the solitude, as everyone holed up in their own bodies and homes, forgetting the world outside. Deep rest could be powerful unless the echoes of your own mind trapped you for too long.
“Amor, I’m only gone a month, then I’ll be back home!” Gabriela heard the plea in her voice. Please stay safe until I return.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. Just enjoy your time back home. I didn’t mean to worry you. I just wanted to check in.”
“Ok. You let me know if anything else happens.”
“Love you too.” The call ended. Avó squeezed the last jar shut and waited for Gabriela to explain. Years of code switching across this same kitchen table kicked in. Better to think things through properly before stressing out Avó. Gabriela still needed time to understand what was happening.
“Angel sends saludos,” she said. It was not that Avó couldn’t handle the news, but something in this kitchen froze time. As long as the rituals and the rhythms here could continue undisturbed, something felt right in the world. Yet something was very off. Angel was sick again, and Gabi was on the other side of the world unable to do anything.
“Is he okay?” Avó asked. “Are you okay?”
“He doesn’t sound good. But I guess there is nothing I can do about it here,” Gabi sighed.
“I will say a special prayer for him, just as I do every day for all my nietas, especially those far away. Perhaps San Rafael can help.”
“Can I help you with anything else?” Gabi asked. The pickled pork would need to soak in spiced vinegar for several days before being served. She looked around and walked over to the dishes in the sink.
“Don’t worry, there’s no need,” Avó said. “I always have time later.”
But Gabi had already started scrubbing away the food bits. Avó knew when someone needed a distraction so she didn’t push. Everything in its time. She set the cafetera to boil and laid out a selection of peanut cookies on her precious wedding china. Care came in many forms.
Gabi wanted to run right across the ocean and be with Angel. But that was not possible.
The coffee whistled. Gabi watched Avó complete their afternoon ritual, stirring in evaporated milk, and a generous spoonful of sugar. How much longer would she be able to stand in this house she had seen her husband build, and that she had lived in for fifty years? How many more Christmases would they have together?
“Life is too short to drink bitter coffee, don’t you think. Come, while it’s still hot.”
They sipped away and dunked the sweets, and when they finished, Gabi gazed up at the clock.
“Look at the time running away. I really have to go”.
“But you just got here!” Avô said, as she always did.
“I’m going, but I’ll be back. I promise.”