Chicken and Cookies

“Mommy,” my daughter said to me before she died, “I will be an angel. I will be with you wherever you go.” But she wasn’t. I couldn’t find her and I’d lost me, too.

It seemed like forever, it seemed like last week. Without my daughter, there was no separation of days and nights, of weeks and months. Even the pain of my divorce had dissolved in the searing heat of Amy’s leukemia.

The year after her death, I moved to the small village of San Juan Cosalá in the heart of Mexico. I was trying to escape the memories, trying to mend the dark gash in my soul, trying to find me. In México, life was simple—without computers and business lunches, without Tinker Toys and Barbie dolls.

I wrote and I walked and I wept.

One late afternoon in August, while hiking in the lush green mountains above Lake Chapala, I saw an older Mexican man and his gangly gray dog. The man leaned against a tree, playing his flute. The music wafted back, riding on an August breeze, encircling me with its charm. As I crept closer, he stopped playing, turned to me and smiled.

Más music, por favor,” I said in my best Spanglish. He played another tune and then invited me to sit and talk. Manuel Ortega had taught himself English while working as a waiter in a village restaurant. He was a quiet, gentle man and, before long, he became my living guide to México. He showed me where to buy cheese and vegetables, where to get my oil changed and how to challenge a parking ticket. He encouraged my feeble attempts to speak Spanish and he made me smile again.

The week before Christmas, we—Manuel, his dog, Chuy, and I with my new digital camera—went back to the Chapala mountains for a hike. The foothills had turned brown after the rainy season.

Por favor, Karina,” Manuel pleaded with me for the second time that week. “We need you to be helping with the Christmas fiesta for our orphans.” He spoke softly, a rich Spanish accent blending with his deep velvet voice.

“Let’s stop a moment,” I said. “This is a beautiful view.” I leaned against a tree and aimed my camera at the village below, trying to capture the mosaic landscape of churches, cobblestone streets and African tulip trees.

I thought about his simple request with a stab of guilt. How could I say no to this friend who had given me so much? All he wanted was my time, something I had plenty of. Couldn’t he understand that every child reminded me of Amy, that their laughter hurt my heart? As I adjusted the focus, struggling to see through salty tears, I imagined what the orphanage would be like. Images of poverty, sadness and sick children swirled in my head. “I can’t help,” I choked out, still looking through the camera’s viewfinder. “Please understand, Manuel. I’m . . . I’m just not ready.”

Manuel dropped the subject and we continued on in silence. After walking another hour, I caught sight of the orphanage in the distance. My knees felt weak. My lips quivered. “You tricked me.” I couldn’t face him.

He tipped up my chin and looked at me with sad sable eyes. Then he took my hands in his. “Trust me, Karina.”

I followed him, shivering in the crisp winter air. As we neared the orphanage, he said, “One hundred and sixty childs are living in this place.” On that sunny December afternoon, they were busy sweeping the grounds, hanging clothes and studying under the trees. Manuel began playing his flute. A herd of goats, grazing in the field, bleated in defiance at our intrusion.

Some of the children ran towards us shouting, “Amigo, amigo.” They scurried around Manuel, laughing and dancing to his music, waving their hands and talking—all at the same time. He reminded me of the pied piper.

“What are they saying?” I asked, ashamed I hadn’t yet learned their language.

He laughed, lifted a small child up onto his shoulders and then knelt so one more could climb onto his knee. “Chicken and cookies. They are saying the Padre, he is promising them chicken and cookies for Navidad.”

I knelt down too, my heartstrings taut. A tawny-faced little girl with big brown eyes shyly approached me, tentatively touching my shoulder with her hand. Amy would have been seven next month, about the same age as this precious Mexican child. I ran my fingers through her shiny black hair. She put her hand in mine, looking at me with a smile that filled her face.

Como te llamas?” I asked, hoping she could understand me.

She pointed to herself and said, “Angela.”

My heart caught in my throat. I pointed to myself and said, “Karina. Mucho gusto.” I stood up, barely able to breathe, then leaned against a tree and closed my eyes. Angela. Amy had said she’d be an angel, that she’d always be with me.

“Your Amy,” Manuel said as though he were reading my thoughts, “she is being here, in the faces and the love of these childs.”

An older, dark-skinned boy, dressed in brightly embroidered Huichol Indian clothing, walked towards me with flowers he had picked. He lowered his eyes and spoke to me in Spanish. I looked questioningly to Manuel.

“This boy is Luis. He is asking, ‘Will you come to the fiesta de Navidad?’ “

Luis’s eyes sparkled and I detected a hint of mischief in this young man. His crooked smile reminded me of Amy’s. As he handed me the flowers, a single tear rolled down my cheek. He reached up to wipe the tear from my face as he waited for my answer. I managed a quivering smile and nodded my acceptance, unable to speak.

Manuel stood and took hold of Angela’s other hand. As the three of us walked toward a group of children playing hopscotch, he looked at me over her head and said, “The healing, Karina, it can begin now.”


For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com


Karen BLUE
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