Swallowtails

Second in a series from my work in progress.
The first obstacle was learning to maintain food without refrigeration. Fortunately, my mother-in-law had much knowledge to share, having lived many years without electricity. I learned to keep my cooked beans under water, and to fry or re-boil them any time they were touched. I kept my milk fresh by boiling and re-boiling as well; we had milk cows, it will stay unturned for two days with this method. The sour milk I used for baking and animal food. We relinquished the idea of a cold beverage, no easy task in southern Mexico’s heat.

Life becomes significantly more labor intensive without electricity, especially when your weekly budget, which was 300 pesos a week at the time, does not allow for convenience anything. I learned to rely on my knives and molcajete (a lava stone mortar and pestle) instead of my blender and spice grinder. Because I had no refrigeration, I could not make a pot of food other than beans and have a few meals for the week, nor were there any bits of this or that to remake or fill out a meal. I could not even grind masa in advance. This meant every meal was made from scratch—handmade tortillas, molcajete salsas, hand squeezed juices all made at the moment, every meal, every day.

I must admit we ate questionable foods during these months. Fortunately, Felipe and I aren’t picky eaters, we have never been sticklers for expiration dates, and we will try anything once. Amazingly, there was only one incident of illness; Felipe ate with his sister that night, thankfully. It was anchovies, I thought since they were heavily salted and under oil they would not go bad. Food poisoning by anchovy is a wicked ailment, of the type that one vacillates between being afraid you’re going to die and wishing you would.

The next challenge was laundry. I had been away for a month and it seemed Felipe had used every cloth item in the house. He had been too busy farming and maintaining our animals to do much but keep himself in clean underwear. It was August so the streams and rivers were full. The stream that runs through our land is only about six inches deep but it runs swiftly over smooth rocks and makes an ideal spot for hand washing. As many days as I could unbegrudingly, I hauled a market bag or two to the creek. A few days into the process I figured out the perfect time to begin, so that I would be in the shade but the water sun-warmed. There was a three-hour window for washing before the sun got too hot to be curbed by the water. I swept the sand from my wash basin and took a seat in a shallow pool with a large stone perfect for scrubbing clothes on in front of me, as the dogs dug themselves divots under low trees and bushes to sleep away the afternoon.

Every time I washed clothes in our creek several swallowtail butterflies would arrive and perform a subtle water ritual. They danced over each other in couplets and then in unison would vibrate their wings, hold them open, press them closed, vibrate and then flutter over each other again. The intricate movements made it appear choreographed. I also loved to watch them roll their red and black tongues out to delicately touch a stone or leaf floating by. Their tongues remind me of the rolled hard candies my grandfather always kept in a fluted red glass bowl during the holidays. I took my break during their performances, marveled by the complexity of their interactions, thinking, I could easily do this for a few months .

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