Tamales | Amethyst Hope Hethcoat

Teresa Rojas sparked a match and lit a candle for her mother like she always did every evening before she went home—before she started work.  Illustrated on the candle was the portrait of a young and beautiful girl—the Virgin Mary, the blessed mother of Jesus, of God.  Teresa and she looked like they could be sisters, maybe even twins, except that Teresa was a few shades darker.

She bowed her head in reverence and took a moment to pray: O most holy Mary, Virgin Mother of God, even though I am most unworthy to be your servant, I am moved by your motherly care for me and long to serve you…

It didn’t matter that seven years had passed since her mother’s death.  Teresa still choked up every time she came to church and lit a candle, and every time she lay awake in the pitch-black night, haunted by her thoughts.

She’d never forget what her mother had sacrificed so that she could survive, how they crossed the border and came to live here in Texas, how they craved the “American Dream” and only found a nightmare.  No.  She wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her earthly mother and her heavenly mother.

As Teresa walked by the altar where the Savior’s body and blood was prepared every Sunday, she peered up at the crucifix:  Jesus’ body painfully nailed onto a cold, wooden cross.  After kneeling, she passed a series of stained-glass murals of Jesus’ trek to crucifixion, minute colored-glass shards painstakingly placed.  Before traveling through the exit doors, Teresa dipped her right index and middle fingers in holy water, then quickly applied the purifying liquid to her temple, heart, and left then right breast.

She left Saint Columban’s and entered the humid night air.  The rancid scent of manure and abandoned oil fields assaulted her nostrils.  But after almost a decade, she’d grown accustomed to the fumes.  Stretched out before her was flat, barren land continuing for what seemed like an eternity. Teresa began the journey home.

On her way, Teresa noticed several girls lurking on a dirt road.  Their faces heavily painted, red lipstick was smeared around their mouths and teeth, and blue shadow around their eyes to cover up the occasional beating.  Some had fishnet stockings.  Others ripped tights.  All wore short skirts and shirts that hugged their cleavage.

A cold hand whirled Teresa around.  It belonged to one of the nightwalkers, a girl with chipped nail polish and greasy hair.

“Hey, you.”

“Excuse me?” Teresa jerked away.

“You think you’re better than us, don’t you?”

“I don’t understand what this is about.”

“Last Sunday when you were selling tamales you didn’t let me buy one.” Teresa looked away, fidgeting with her rosary. “That’s what I thought.”

“Lo siento.  I’m sorry,” Teresa whispered.

The prostitute shrugged her shoulders. “Don’t worry, senorita.  This world will catch up with you, too.  Pray all you want, but in this life a girl’s gotta save herself.”

Teresa pitied the lost girls and herself and her mother. Some were probably mothers themselves, with mouths to feed.  Maybe undocumented too.  All were just trying to survive.  But she knew that God loves all His children.  After all, Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus’ most loyal and beloved disciples.  Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, Teresa repeated to herself.

She picked up the pace.  She needed to get home in time: her humble abode—Apartment #306.  She fumbled around in her handbag.  Next to her rosary and prayer cards, she found the rusty key. Teresa jabbed around in the dark, searching for the slot. As usual, the door was jammed. After turning the key a hard right and throwing her weight against the door, she managed to get it open.

Teresa turned the light on.  It sparked, forcing a terrified roach to scurry further into the shadows. The flickering light revealed a small room. The carpet was tainted with cigarette burns and black with petrified gum. To the left was a small closet, its door barely hanging on its hinges. A bit further up was the bathroom where warm showers and toilet flushes were inconsistent luxuries.  It was also where she stored the onions, chilies, and extra spices she used to make tamales.

Teresa made her way to a series of sacred figurines and candles, each depicting a different saint.  She lit her favorites:  Saint Agnes, a virgin and martyr who was tortured, then decapitated.  Even after being forced to parade around naked, her faith never faltered.  Saint Seraphia.  Joan of Arc.  Our Lady of Guadalupe. Santa Muerte—just to name a few.  The biggest icon, of course, was a statue of Mary holding the baby Jesus.

Teresa fell upon a broken mattress above which rested a hand-crafted crucifix and crooked plaque:  Proverbs 3:25-26.  “Do not be afraid of sudden terror, nor of trouble from the wicked when it comes; For the Lord will be your confidence, and will keep your foot from being caught.

Teresa reached underneath her pillow and took out a photograph, edges bent and smudged by her fingerprints.  The smiling face belonged to her mother when she was young and happy—before she gave birth, crossed the border, and sold her pride.  Even with the silverfish holes, the picture was Teresa’s most treasured possession.

A drop of guilt crawled down Teresa’s cheek.  It was her fault.   If only she hadn’t been born.

As Teresa clutched the picture close to her heart, her eyes grew heavy and she began to drift off into a world of serenity.  Who would she meet tonight?  Jesus?  His mother?  Her mother? Just as she approached the gate of dreams, her consciousness picked up five knocks on the door—the first two staccato and a pause between each of the last three.  Was it 2 AM already?  She nearly forgot; she had an appointment.

She climbed off the mattress and cracked the door, peeking outside.  There stood a heavy man, wearing a sweat-drenched wife-beater and baggy jeans.  He had a shaved head with a beard surrounding four teeth that were jagged and yellow.

“I want some, ‘tamales.’  Is this where I can taste some hot tamales?” The man coughed and spit out phlegm mixed with a wad of chewing tobacco. “Well, is it or not?”  The man shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

“Yes, sir. Come inside.”  This is how it always went.  The man slammed the door behind him.

“Come bring that taco over here to daddy!  I got some hot sauce for you.”

He threw her down on the mattress and straddled her. Teresa stared up toward heaven, concentrating on the Kingdom of God instead of the hell she was living here on earth.  Just as the man began unzipping his jeans, a being burst forth from the closet and forced a rosary under his chin, pulling the rosary tighter and tighter.

The man tried to move.  Fighting to rip the noose from his neck, he squirmed and writhed.   His plump face turned redder and redder.  A wet gurgle erupted—then nothing.  Sister Retribution released the rosary and kicked the corpse to the floor, then knelt down and put their huge arms around the girl.

“Sweetheart, I’m so sorry for what you had to go through.  He got so close this time.  But we did it!” they whispered.  Teresa stared at her best friend in their short skirt and studded belt with their plump lips and plucked brows.

“But next time, a bit sooner please.”

“Definitely.  I was just kind of stuck in the closet.  It’s too small.”

Teresa pulled the wallet out of the corpse’s pocket and thumbed through the cash.  Fifty dollars.  She’d tithe it all to the church, of course.  Maybe some good could be done with it: homeless shelters, rehabilitation programs, and food for the hungry.  Teresa pulled the corner of her mouth into a half-smile.

“Now let’s get to work.”

Then the real ritual began.  Sister Retribution dragged the offering into the bathroom and placed it in the shower.  Teresa reached under the stove for the good knives.  After washing and sharpening them, she used them to carefully remove the offering’s head.

Sister Retribution held the offering upside-down until all the liquid had run down the drain.  The partners in faith proceeded to slice the meat, piece by piece, into neat little chunks. It was then shredded, minced, and mixed with the required amounts of chili, white onion, jalapenos, garlic cloves, and potatoes.

While the meat was marinating, Sister Retribution focused their attention on the corn flour dough, making it nice and pasty. Teresa then steamed the paste and meat in fresh cornhusks. The aroma of seasoned goodness gradually replaced the smoky smell of blood.   After many hours of labor, Teresa and Sister Retribution felt like the Hebrews in Egypt.  Like the sacrificial lamb of the Old Testament, these tamales praised the Lord Almighty.  Finally, the offering was complete and ready to serve.

***

“Delicious!”

“You’ve outdone yourselves!”

“Even better than last year!”

At Saint Columban’s annual carnival, over twenty people waited in line at Teresa and the Sister’s booth.

“We’re so glad you enjoy it.  We both worked really hard,” said Teresa, smiling at her spouse.

“Don’t forget.  We’re also selling our handmade rosaries.  They’ll never break,” said Sister Retribution, looking as handsome as JFK clad in their navy blue suit.

“Well if they’re anything like your tamales, I’ll take two!  By the way, do you cater? My daughter’s quinceañera is coming up in a couple of months.  We need about a hundred tamales.”

Teresa beamed with excitement.  Her lifelong dream of attending a quince might finally come true!  She glanced at Sister Retribution who paused for a slight bit before enthusiastically nodding.

“Yes.  Absolutely.  One hundred.  We can do that.”

Teresa recognized the prostitute who had confronted her exiting the church, wearing a tattered dress with her hair slicked back in a greasy bun.   “I’ll be right back.”   Teresa left the Sister to dazzle the customers with their charm while she took some tamales with her.

“Here,” Teresa told the girl, handing her the platter.   “I really am sorry about last time.”  The girl looked from Teresa to the tamales, before digging in.

Teresa peered into the heavens.  Jesus and her mother were so proud of her.  She could feel their love flowing through her body like the Eucharist.

More good works.  More retribution.  More tamales.

————
Amethyst Hope Hethcoat loves cats, pop culture, and peace. A graduate of Chapman University, she searches for Truth behind the Orange Curtain. She hopes you find her work disturbing as well as pleasing.

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