Tequila and Magic in a Mexican Garden
By Mad Coyote Joe
Looking over at the kitchen window, making sure that his wife Norma isn’t watching, Santiago reaches into the big burlap bag and produces a half empty bottle of José Cuervo Traditional Tequila. He slowly takes a generous gulp of the golden brown liquid. Smacking his lips together, he utters, “Madre de dios, I needed that.”
We are in the garden collecting hibiscus flowers for Norma. After they dry she will use them to make Jamaica tea. I am thirteen years old and spending the summer in Guadalajara, Mexico with Santiago and Norma. Years ago they worked on my grandfather’s avocado farm in Escondido, California. They are both in their late seventies.
“ Now you want to be careful to pinch the stem just below the base, like this,” Santiago said, carefully removing the flower from the bush. “Turn the flower facing up and gently slide your fingers inside without crushing the flesh of the flower or disturbing the delicate core.” The old vaquero gets a little smile on his sun darkened face and continues, “Trust me mijo, one day, when you have a senorita, she will be very happy that you know how to do this.” He reaches over messing up my hair, while patting me on the head and then goes on. “Pinch this part, called the pestle, at the base and carefully remove it. Then take off the green cup that surrounds the flower, make sure there are no little bugs and then drop the flower into this burlap bag.”
As he drops the deep red blossom into the bag, he gestures with his calloused hand, suggesting that I start picking. “Be gentle, and do me a favor, hurry every chance you get. I don’t pay you nothing for nothing.” He says with a grin. “Every time you pick one of these flowers a new one will grow back the next day.”
Checking over and then dropping one of the flowers in the bag, I look up and ask “Why?”
The lines around the old man’s face tighten a little, as his smile grows and I can almost see the story coming into focus behind his eyes, “Well… a long time ago, a beautiful woman lived in a little Casita, that eventually was added onto and finally became our big house that you see before you. Her husband got hurt and could no longer work.
“How did he get hurt?” I ask.
“How do I know? Maybe he worked in the circus washing the elephant’s balls and the elephant sat on him. Whatever happened he couldn’t work.” The old man pauses, taking another slow sip of the tequila, “Ahh! Que bueno… Soon the couple had no money, not even for food. The woman was very worried and would cry every night right here, on this very spot. One night a little fairy was out collecting moonlight and he heard her and asked why she was crying. She said that she needed work, anything to feed her family. The fairy, feeling sorry for her, said he would try to help. He touched the earth and said something in a secret language that only fairies know, and then he disappeared.
I break in, going along with the story, “A fairy… really abuelito, did you ever see a fairy?”
“Gordito hush!” Santiago says, as he sharpens his focus on me raising his index finger, in an attempt to look serious. “Pay attention. The next morning the very first one these bushes, popped up right here where her tears hit the ground, and the bush had one perfect red flower. It was so beautiful that the woman thought it must be a sign of good luck. She put it in her hair and went to town to look for work. Times were hard and there was no work to be had, but richest man in the town was having café’ on his terrace. The wonderful scent of the flower intoxicated him. Looking up he saw the beautiful woman with the flower in her hair, and had to have her. He offered her money to spend the night with him. She was so desperate that she agreed.
The next day, when she left the rich man’s home, she was overwhelmed with guilt, and went to the church to pray for forgiveness. As she looked into the font of holy water, in her reflection, the shame of what she had done was as clear on her face as the perfection of the flower that was still in her hair. And then it happened, as she touched the surface of the holy water, she saw her sins disappear while the flower shriveled and died. Then the dried up flower fell from her hair, into the holy water, which instantly turned dark red, like the blood of Christo.”
“Was it blood?” I asked.
“No, the holy water just turned the color of blood. The woman went to the confessional and told the Padre about the rich man and the magic flower. He thought it must be a sign from god, so he absolved her of her sins. She went home with food and told her husband that she had paid all the bills. She was free of guilt and her husband had no suspicions.
When the Padre saw the holy water that looked like blood. He worried it would scare away his flock, coming to confession. He couldn’t just throw it out, so he blessed himself and drank it.”
“What did it taste like?” I ask?
“I don’t know, but it looked like blood and the padre had the cajones to drink it! The next morning when the woman went outside, the bush had grown a new flower, just as beautiful. The woman, thinking that it might be a good idea to make a little more money to put aside in case of hard times, put the flower in her hair and went to town. Another rich man fell under the flower’s spell and this time they went to a hotel. Again she felt the guilt and again she went to church and again the flower shriveled and died along with her sin, but this time, not wanting the Padre to know what she had been doing, she caught the flower before it fell into the holy font. She went home and tossed the dried flower into a big empty vase. This went on for a while; every day a new flower, everyday more money and her husband never suspected a thing. And their little shack soon turned into this big beautiful hacienda.”
Santiago takes the flower I am working on out of my hand and inspects it, “Good, make sure the center is all gone, it will make the tea bitter.” He drops my flower into the bag and pulls out the bottle taking another sip. As he savors the tequila he thinks about the story, then he continues. “I tell you Mijo, living a lie is a funny thing, it eats away at you. Finally the woman could take it no longer. She went and told the Padre what she was doing. The Padre made her promise to quit. Then he told her about drinking the holy water.”
“Did she quit?” I asked.
“Yes, she did, but the bush kept making flowers. She would pick them and put them in the vase, which was filling up very fast. She decided she should get rid of the flowers before they caused any more trouble. Remembering the Padre’s story, she made a tea with them and served it to her husband… the same Jamaica tea we drink today.
Maybe it was the holy water and maybe it was her sin and the tea was delicious and it quenched her husband’s thirst; but not forever like the Padre who was never thirsty or needed another drink as long as he lived.”