The Last Island
By Phyllis C Koppel
From Mamma, I’ve learned that the cornfields surrounding our cabin had fed Granny, her Mamma, as well as her Grandmama, and from my Pah, I learned that there is always more than meets the eye.
We moved to a magical cornfield over a year ago, the day I was to become a sister but, that never happened. The fields give my family all we need, always have and always will. Mamma says it’s because Lake Alma No. 8, lies in two states, one province, and two countries, Canada and the good ol’ U. S. of A. Pah thinks most everything Mamma says is nonsense.
Mamma is right about Lake Alma No. 8’s location, though. “Ain’t many cornfields can boast that,” she says fixing the silly bonnet on her head that makes her look like a pilgrim straight out of Plymouth. "Listen Pet, when you’s bigger and someone asks where you from, you from Lake Alma No. 8 and let ’em figure out where that is. You’s only nine, and no nine-year-old girl gonna know ‘bout them things.”
When she lowers the pail into the well a dry Chinook wind blows through the cornstalks making them sway and sing. The shrill is loud, piercing, like a needle going through one ear and out the other.
“Agh! Never no peace an’ quiet around here, never no quiet,” Mamma takes the pail of water into the cabin. I see fire in her veins.
"I know plenty of Geography,” I say running after her in protest. “Pah teaches me all he knows about the world.”
“I swear you two are like some kind of talkin’ Encyclopedia Britannica. Tell me Pet, in them big books of yours, is there a place like Lake Alma No. 8?”
“Mamma, we live in the middle of cornfields. We don’t talk to anybody, and all we see is corn. Pah teaches me that there is a whole lotta world out there, and I intend to meet it one day.”
“Ain’t gonna happen, Pet. Pah can’t shame you outta this land. You are bound to these fields by your ancestors. Your bloodline lives under this earth. Help set the table for dinner.”
Mamma tells me about the many ways she uses the corn that cocoons us from the outside world. Tonight, she has prepared Izquitl.
"Pet, do you know this recipe is as old as the Nahuas and the Aztecs? To prepare this dish, I toast the corn over a comal until it pops. This must be done when the corn is freshly picked as time is of essence.”
“Mamma, we pick corn all the time. That’s all we have.”
“Still, it must be fresh Pet, for the dish to work. If you let more than 10 minutes pass between picking the corn, popping it, sprinkling dry Epazote when the corn’s almost cooked, you’ll get mush instead of Izquitl.”
Mamma’s Izquitl is never mush. It is delicious, as are the other dishes she makes. Everything is corn-based. When we are almost done eating, we try not to stare at what Pah calls, the island of guilt. When dinner ends, and we have eaten all but the last bite, he and I sit with our heads bowed and eye the remaining morsel that sits in a sea of open plate. Our eyes feel moist at the sight of that single island of food, the last spoonful of Epazote Corn, or sometimes it is the only quesadilla or the lonely taco, the only chip pleading to be plucked from the ocean of porcelain and dipped into the red salsa sea.
Doomed to rot uneaten, the island of guilt will perish as compost in the backyard because of Mamma’s many rules: don’t eat the last bite on the plate, never-ever go down to the basement, don’t waste your time asking, ‘bout things, and never stop feeling guilt and shame. Remorse. The weight of the world on your shoulders. Never.
“There’s children starvin’ in Afghanistan and Tekumestan,” she says with authority. “No matter nobody knows where them placers be, we knows for sure there’s children starvin’ there so count your blessings, I say."
“You just invent a place?" Pah stretches for the last spoonful of Epazote Corn but retracts his hairy brown arm when Mamma’s eyes pierce his. “Whereabouts is Tekumestan, anyway? You just starved that country right out of the map. Ticomostan, Y cómo estan…” he sings and dances like a clown, mocking Mamma. “I am 139% in agreeance with that.”
If guilt is what Mamma dresses me up in every morning, Pah feeds me with his contagious sense of enthusiasm. No matter what he does, he is always, ‘139% in agreeance with that.’ Mamma ignores him as she always does. Pah seizes the moment, grabs the island of guilt and pops the last heap of Epazote Corn into his mouth.
We all know what Mamma says about the last bit on the serving plate and I stare at him. Pah winks at me and uncovers a piece of tamale he’s been hiding under the napkin and hands it to me. Shhhh…
I shove the crumbly cornmeal into my mouth as fast as I can before Mamma catches me, but Pah has given me his hot tamale.
“Ayyyyy,” I spit the wet crumbs on the table. “Water!”
“What’s wrong?” Mamma hands me a glass. Suspicion covers her eyes when she spots regurgitated tamale on her tablecloth. “Where. Did. Them. Crumbs. Come. From?”
I look at Pah, and he looks back. We shrug.
A flurry of chubby hands flies over the table making the crumbs disappear. Mamma always thinks someone out there is hungrier than us, but we live all alone, so how would she know? When she returns to scrubbing dishes, Pah and I share a guilty smile.
It’s always been like this; Pah and me against the world. “The universe presents us with obstacles, my little Pet, to squeeze more love out of our hearts,” he’d say.
“What do you mean, Pah?"
"Take your Mamma. She is the provider of obstacles. Don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t have fun, don’t live life. Obstacles.”
“Yeah, and don’t ever dare eat the last bite, because there is always someone hungrier than you who needs it more,” I laugh.
Darkness covers Pah's face. Only for a moment though. In a funny voice, he mocks, “There are hypothetical children, in non-existent countries that NOOOOOBODY can pronounce, that are starving. Tell me, my little Pet, how can one not love such a creature?”
Pah's knowledge of the world is astounding. Though we live in the cornfields, away from cities, towns, and villages, far from people and their pets, Pah knows about the ways of the world. He says he gets his information from the stars, from which we are all made of, and from the gods of our ancestors.
“What do the gods tell you?” I ask Pah one day I sit with him in the room where he keeps gazillion books.
“The god of avarice, tells me to look out for myself, feed myself, take the last damn island of food, but the god of bellicose desires, tells me not to fret about the last morsel, for I would have eaten the whole meal before the island became lonely and isolated.”
Pah does that all the time. He flings words at me as if throwing confetti, all jumbled up, without sense or reason, and in this confusion, the illusion of happiness rests on my ears.
“You sure know how to talk a tall mountain of words, doncha?" Mamma tosses Pah a cloth to dry dishes. "Why the hell are you gonna poison little Pet's brains with words not worth the air they float on? Words the blades of corn gonna cut up to pieces in a jiffy?"
"I am 139% in agreeance with that." He pats Mamma's bonnet and attacks the dishes. I can see him smile when he scrubs the blue plate that floated the island of guilt.
As we dry the dishes, Mamma prepares tomorrow’s meal in her head. She tells us that, that because of all the rain, it will be; Huitlacoche and Brain Quesadillas.
The fungus that occurs on the corn during the rainy season is fleshy and inky black, and Mamma loves to add it to her dishes. Tomorrow, she will send me out to shave off the fungus from the corn cobs to add to the quesadillas.
Sesos Para Quesadillas