She Pays With Her Life
For The Sins Of All Snakes
“She Pays With Her Life
For The Sins Of All Snakes”
To Be A Snake
The viper makes a scandal by poisoning her victims with awful fangs and man hates all snakes because of her. But what of the gentle serpent who is not charged with deadly venom? Helpless under man’s big foot, she has to hide from the world and share the enmity of mankind with the poisonous viper. Even though she makes herself small and quiet, when she is caught in the open, she pays with her life for the sins of all snakes.
Excerpt from Chapter One “SERPENTINE” by JPS Brown
I was running like the American football players do with a ball under my arm, and everything that worried me was tiring of the chase.
I woke up surprised to be in my own bed, but happy. I knew something good was supposed to happen that day. I had slept as soundly as I had slept before I was born. I awakened as though this would be the first day of my life. My mind was still too much in slumber to remember my previous days. I was just happy to have returned to my existence and to find myself again in my own bed.
I had slept so soundly that I had not been bothered by my Tia Elena’s snores in the night. My Aunt Elena slept in my room on a cot. She had already risen and gone to early mass. Her bed was tightly made up and cold as though she had never been in it. She spent so little time on her cot that, except for the times I heard her snores in the night, I could almost believe she never went to bed. She always retired long after I went to sleep and arose for early mass long before I awoke in the morning.
My grandfather had put down wooden floors in our house, and my Tia Elena and my Nana, my grandmother, kept them scrubbed and polished to a shine. My grandfather had stained them with oil so they would not rot. I loved the way those floors smelled of pitch pine and resin. They were hard and smooth enough to last forever. The first smell I enjoyed every day of my life was the odor of those polished floors.
My Tia Elena was a spinster lady, very religious and Catholic in her deepest soul. Our room was used also for our religious needs. Shrines to the Blessed Virgin Mary and other Saints filled a corner of the room and were illumined through our nights by vigil candlelight in colored glass. The pine resin smell was livened by the melted beeswax of the candles. Tia Elena kept a big picture of our Lord and his Sacred Heart on the wall above all the rest so we could see Him if we needed Him in the night, or when we were sick in bed, or dressing ourselves to go out where His goodness was less appreciated. My Uncle Salvador had set up a varnished kneeling bench below the shrine.
The blanket that covered my bed was the same one that had covered me all the days of my life. A picture of a horse adorned it. I was sure the day would be good, although I still could not remember why. I dozed awhile longer, and then my blanket flew off, and Tia Elena stood over me, laughing.
“Lazy KiKi, get up,” she said. “Stiffen your spine. Don’t you know what day this is?”
Then I remembered why I felt so happy. “It’s my Saints day,” I said softly. “It’s the day of the Henry’s, the Enrique’s, day of the KiKi’s, my birthday! I’m twelve years old.”
I jumped out of bed, made the sign of the cross, grabbed my shirt and pants and yelled, “It’s my birthday!”
“Just one little minute, heathen, Phariseo, Pharisee. Because today is your Saints day, you have to give yourself a hot bath and remove the crust before you go out into the street. I want you as clean as the day you were born, understand?”
“Yes, miss,” said I.
“We’ll have a celebration with a cake and a piñata at noon and all your little friends will come, so don’t forget to come home.”
I stood there in Tia Elena’s grip, longing for release so I could rush into action.
“KiKi, do you hear me?”
I could move fast when I needed to. I was lightning about dressing, washing and eating, and I knew how to hold myself to a wonderful calm when I was under the eye of Tia Elena. I dared not try to sneak away with dirt on me when I had been ordered to wash. When she relaxed her vigil, I could go like the devil and be out of her sight, sound, smell, and grasp in an instant. But if I did not do as she said while under her power, she could swallow me.
I jumped under the shower. On her way to the kitchen, Tia Elena went by the bathroom door and said, “Be sure you scour the crust. Scour and re-scour, because if you don’t, I’ll use my scrub brush on your hide. Your breakfast will be on the table when you come out.”
The showerhead in our bath was as big as a sunflower. The water drained from it with no pressure. I washed and jumped out as the first drops soaked my dirt, and before the second drops were on the way. Because Tia Elena was a spinster lady, I could be reasonably sure that she would not intrude to inspect my naked body. I had to be careful though. I was always sure to wet my head and wash every naked part of me that she could see after I dressed. I knew by experience, if she caught me with dirt in my ears or on my neck after my bath, she would strip me, run me under her scrub brush until I was pink, and spank me before she let me dress myself again.
In the instant I took to dry myself I smelled chorizo, the chile sausage, and the fried eggs Tia Elena cooked for me. I hurried and combed my hair, then buttoned on my shirt and pants as I ran to the kitchen.
My full breakfast plate of fried eggs, beans, chorizo, potatoes and hot, buttered tortillas was on the kitchen table. Tia Elena stoked her immense stove with mesquite wood. A new pile of wood lay stacked neatly against the wall beside it. I knew she must have carried it in and stacked it there herself because that was my job and I had neglected it the night before. I hoped she would not scold me and hold me up. I was in a hurry to celebrate my day and I did not want to start off by feeling guilty. She did not say anything about it right then, but we both knew I had a scolding coming, unless my birthday might save me this time.
Full pots spilled rich paste out from under their lids as they danced over the hot stove. Those pots were always working in that kitchen. I sat at the table and looked out a big window that overlooked our yard and corral. Every house in my town of Fronteras, Mexico had a corral because everyone kept animals. We kept chickens and goats and my Uncle Salvador’s horse. Tia Elena kept onions, tomatoes, fruits and dried meat in the window. In the cold weather the window served as a refrigerator for fresh fruits and meat. In the warm weather it was a place for vegetables and fruits to ripen and meat to dry into jerky. We never kept much fresh food in the house, only enough to eat the day we brought it from the market, or would keep in the fresh air on the windowsill for a day.
“Now you look like my twelve-year-gentleman is supposed to look on his Saint’s day,” Tia Elena said. “Eat your breakfast slowly.”
I was hungry and chorizo, eggs, and potatoes, beans and tortillas were my favorite breakfast. Tia Elena also gave me a cup of sugared coffee with hot milk.
As I ate, our rooster sang in the corral. “Kikirikikiiiii,” he crowed with all his heart, and all his might. “Kikirikikiiiii!”
What’s the rooster singing this morning?” I asked Tia Elena. “What does he tell us?”
My Aunt liked to play with me by making up songs the rooster sang. She went to a corner where she kept a hundred-pound sack of frijoles, beans. She scooped beans into a pan, came and sat with me at the table, and began cleaning them of rocks and trash. She sipped her coffee with me. We drank Cafe Combate. The trade name means “Combat Coffee”. The lady delighted in her coffee and she brewed it thick and black. She caught me watching her and winked at me. “I love my coffee, KiKi. All right, the next time the rooster sings I’ll translate. Now be quiet and wait for the song. Our rooster will begin soon, since it is his young master’s birthday. Then the other smart and cocky roosters in the town will answer him.”
I dunked a pan dulce, sweet roll, in my coffee and kept real quiet. Tia Elena raked beans off the table into the pan on her lap while we waited for our gallo to sing. Her pretty hands flew over the work and she soon finished. She rose and washed the beans with clear water, then covered them with water, put the pan on the stove, and sat back down with me.
“Kikirikikiiiii!” our rooster crowed.
In a moment a neighbor’s rooster picked up the song. Then another answered farther away. Then another and another sounded, each one farther away, as though they passed on our rooster’s message until the song faded in the distance.
“There, did you want to know what they sing today, KiKi?”
Tia Elena and I were quiet for another moment while we waited for the rooster to crow again. She went to stir a pan on the stove and kept her head down, her thoughts suspended, waiting. Our rooster crowed his message again.
Tia Elena raised her head and translated, “Ya amanecio, the day is born.”
The second rooster crowed down the street, and she translated, “Who told you so?”
The third rooster crowed further down the street, and she said, “KiKi’s Tia Elena told us so.”
The first rooster crowed again, and she translated, “What day is today?”
The second rooster crowed, and she said, “It’s KiKi’s day.”
The third rooster crowed, and she asked, “Who told you so?”
We waited, and we waited, and we waited, and finally the first rooster crowed and Tia Elena translated in a low voice, “I, who know, say it is so.”
We laughed together at that.
My Uncle Salvador walked into the kitchen smiling and singing Las Mañanitas, The Little Mornings, a song that is sung as a birthday serenade in Mexico.
“Good morning, family,” he said, “Happy Birthday, KiKi.” I stood and he hugged me and kissed the top of my head. “What’s all this chatter?” he asked and sat down beside me at our long kitchen table. Tia Elena came to him with a cup of coffee. He put an arm around me and hugged me again. His breath was full of the fumes of pure mezcal, the strong spirit he liked to drink. He always took along a flask of mezcal to keep away the chill when he went out on his early morning milk run.
My Uncle Salvador was a stocky, powerful man. His face was strong, handsome and full of good humor. Tia Elena gave him a steaming bowl of menudo, a stew of cow paunch and white corn. I passed him a bowl of chiltepines, dry, round balls of wild pepper, the hottest spice we used at our table, and probably the hottest known to man. He crushed the peppers in his fingers and sprinkled them over the menudo. The steam of the stew turned red, the spice of the chiltepines and the delicious vapor that rose from the menudo peaked my appetite again.
Uncle Salvador’s slurps called the stew off the spoon into his mouth and his face began to sweat. He had come into the room nearly drunk, but the menudo and chili calmed the influence of the mezcal and sobered him so he could rest.
My grandmother came into the kitchen. She had been out in the yard, gathering eggs. She hugged me and kissed my face, and wished me happiness. My Uncle rose from the table, winked at me and went into his bedroom. He had risen early to drive his horse and wagon on the milk route and he always rested after breakfast.
We heard Don Eleno, the leñero, woodcutter, pass by on the street.
“I’ll cut and split your wood,” he cried for all to hear. “Who has wood for me to cut?”
Tia Elena looked at her stack by the stove and told me to run outside and call him to our woodpile.
“I’m at your service, KiKi, as usual,” he said, in his deep, bass voice.
He was about sixty years old, tall, strong, and good-humored, like my Uncle Salvador. He wore a red bandanna on his brow to keep the sweat of his work out of his eyes. He walked the streets in search of work every day.