A Drop of Caldo

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“You’re ready for the trip back to Santa Fe?” Alejandro asked, tipping his head in the tinted kitchen light, nudging sleep from my eyes. I yawned in response, swiping at my half-lidded eyes, mascara staining my fingers. What time was it again?

My vision swam in the half-dark of four a.m., the oven’s clock a tiny green glow. In the living room, Alejandro placed my weekend bag by the door. We tip-toed in the dark, hands finding each other.

“I’ll be fine,” I nodded. “Especially if I can take some soup,” I asked, nodding toward the fridge. Alejandro shook his head, smiling.

“I’ll make a to-go container, but you can’t just take the whole thing! What about your family?” he whispered.

I rolled my eyes, but agreed. Two nights ago, I’d come, duffle in-hand, to chicken, slices of zucchini, chopped carrots, and cilantro swimming to a boil. Alejandro had known how much I’d been craving them. He used to guide my hands through stirring red chile, teaching me to unwrap garlic-flowers. Underneath the humming fan, I watched as he brought everything to a balance, delicately-perched on the tips of our tongues.

In a winter starved of caldo de pollo, pozole, and sopa de fideo, he planned to surprise me. He and my mom hovered over saucepans, coaxing the caldo to boil, then waited until it was just cool enough to be weathered by waiting palms and open mouths. I’d come home, our scatter of chihuahuas dancing at my feet, to my mother savoring her own bowl in the living room. Alejandro stood in the kitchen light, awash in sunset, and offered me my own bowl brimming with green onion stalks, the salty taste of bouillon.

He could see the highway in my eyes, the black-tar sinking like tidepools in the corners. I sagged into the couch and sighed into the steam. A second later, he sunk into place beside me and together we melted, sipping the broth.

Now, as I hurtled back beyond the turquoise highway and into Santa Fe again, I imagined the caldo cresting from one place to the next.

We couldn’t have known, then, that leaving the remaining cups could cause someone else to boil over instead, to bring the house to a seething simmer that knew only how to burn. We couldn’t have known tea-kettle shrieks would become shouts, the cracking of ceramic, a morning match singing to the sounds of a coffee pot, just as bitter, just as blackened.

If I could, I would’ve taken it all. I could’ve spared my mom’s attempts to calm the rising temperature, to save the caldo from a hefty bag spread thin in her hands. I would’ve boiled Navajo tea instead of coffee, could have spread its petals by the spoonful. I would’ve pretended that our Navajo tea could still soften mouths that only knew how to purse, to harden, to bare teeth. I would’ve taken every last cupful of caldo with me, if I could. Even just a drop.

Brianna G. Reed is a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

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