Water was still dripping from the worn out wash cloth hanging on the kitchen faucet. Nialin had just finished cleaning the kitchen. She had made a mess while making a roast that was now cooking in the oven.
“Hmm… “, she wondered if she should make some bread.
Unexpectedly the phone rang. She didn’t even have to look at the caller id to know it was her little sister, Shondiin. Shondiin had a funny habit of always calling as she was walking into the house.
“Hey are you home?” Shondiin’s echo carried down the hallway as she burst through the front door, her belly sticking out the bottom of her shirt.
“I’m in here” Nialin hollered from the kitchen.
“Hey what are you cooking tonight for supper?”
She told Shondiin about the beautiful pot roast enshrouded in vegetables baking in the oven. It was slowly cooking at a warm temperature to ensure its superlative piquancy.
“Are you going to make bread?”
Nialin turned to the glistening kitchen counters and decided it wasn’t a bad idea.
“Wanna help?” She asked her little sister. who looked different than the last time she had seen her. And not just because her belly was growing, that was obvious; her face looked older than before.
“I don’t know how to make bread” ,Shondiin answered annoyed that she couldn’t.
“You should learn.” In truth Nialin had always been a better cook. Their mom had left them at a young age and Nialin always felt like it was her job to cook and clean for the mother-less family they shared. Over the years she had become somewhat of an expert. She was even able to synchronize her side dishes so that all the food would be ready at the same time.
Nialin looked at the clock, opened the cupboard where their mixing bowls rested and searched for her favorite one. It was buried inside a large metal mixing bowl which Nialin despised. If you had nails the sound of them would screech along the inside as you kneaded the dough. The one Nialin liked to use was clear and plastic. Its rim once had a lid but that was a long time ago. The lid had been lost for years.
“First you grab a bowl.” Nialin sat the plastic bowl on the counter. Then she turned towards the cupboard and pulled out the two most important ingredients: Bluebird flour and Clabber Girl baking powder.
“I thought you used salt too.” Shondiin pronounced as she walked over to the bowl and inspected it to ensure no dust was crawling at the bottom. She had every intention on wiping it with a paper towel but decided to inspect it first to see if it possibly needed to be washed as well.
“You can if you want.” Nialin placed the flour and baking powder on the counter, tossed the rag off the faucet and turned the knob. In order for bread to taste right the water has to be scorching hot. When Nialin used to cook bread with her grandma, her fingers always felt like they were going to blister from the intense heat. Her grandma used boiling water. Nialin was not that bold.
She handed a paper towel to Shodiin and then washed her hands in the warming water.
As Nialin wiped her hands with a clean paper towel she told her sister “when you cook bread, the water’s temperature is the most important part. It has to be really hot.” With the noise of the water falling down the drain, Nialin opened the flour and took the cap off the baking powder.
“Are you done wiping the bowl yet? You know I already washed it.”
Shondiin was in that stage of pregnancy where she wanted everything to be clean and sanitary.
“I just want to make sure… “, Shondiin gave the bowl on last wipe before handing it to her sister.
“Make sure what?”
Shondiin told Nialin about some doctor show she watched earlier that day. The doctor had told his viewers about tiny bacteria that can potentially threaten pregnant women. She wanted her baby to come into this world “normal”.
Nialin ignored her sister’s advice. She didn’t believe in those kinds of stories. She had seen and heard people can survive even in harsh conditions, full of bacteria. The Navajo reservation, where they are from, is proof. And so Nialin pretended like she was listening. She even pretended by nodding her head.
It was even more obvious she didn’t care when she carelessly interrupted her sister and showed her how much flour you would need to use in order to make 8 tortillas. The fine, white flour showered the mixing bowl like a mountain.
“How do you know that’s enough?” Shondiin asked.
“Because the mound is this big,” she explained that the flour’s peak would barely touch the mixing bowl’s lid, if they still had it.
“The water should be just right. Here let me show you.”
Shondiin followed her sister and to the sink.
“Touch it” Nailin was referring to the water steaming out of the faucet. She pointed to it before she began mixing the dry ingredients together.
“Ow, that burns!” Shondiin cried.
“That’s how hot it has to be. Now watch, this is how Navajo women do it.” She touched the water with the tips of her fingers before slowly uniting the three ingredients.
“If you do a little at a time then you’ll never put in too much and it won’t burn as bad.” The dough was starting to stick to the cracks between Nialin’s fingers. Over time Nialin would allow small amounts of water to stream into the bowl as she steadily kneaded the dough effortlessly.
“Grandma used to make me use boiling water, now that burned.” Nialin emphasized.
Their grandma was a funny lady. She used to make breakfast burritos for the construction workers in Page, Arizona. When the girls would visit for the summer, Nialin would wake up early to help. Her grandma was known for her tortillas. Nialin would sit on a chair and watch her grandma’s aged hands fold the dough, unaffected by the water’s boiling temperature.
Nialin and her grandma wouldn’t talk. Nialin couldn’t speak Navajo. Their grandma only spoke Navajo. Their grandma thought their mother was lazy for not taking care of them and teaching them Navajo. Their grandma thought Nialin and Shondiin were lazy for not learning how to speak Navajo on their own.
Nialin knew her grandmother felt this way. Her cousins reminded her constantly, but Nialin didn’t care. She liked to watch her grandma make bread. Sometimes her grandma would let her help, but most of the time Nialin would just sit there in silence and watch.
“You used to always help grandma make breakfast burritos?” Shondiin said while peering into the mixing bowl.
“Sometimes”, Nailin said as she walked towards the counter. “You can turn off the water now.” By this time Nialins hands were covered in dough. She tried to scrape off enough so she could open the fridge to grab the last ingredient: milk.
“Hey Shondiin, look at the dough. Do you see how it’s still powdery?” She grabbed the milk out of the fridge. “When it’s like this that’s when you can add the milk. Most people don’t use milk but I like to.” Their grandma used milk.
“Do you remember that one time mom left us in that trailer for a week and we lived off of tortillas?” Nialin remembered. She was eleven. Shondiin was nine. That was the first time Nialin made bread by herself. They were on their reservation, visiting their mom.
Page, Arizona can be paradise for lots of people. It teeters on the border of the Navajo reservation. Tourists go there on their way to and from the Grand Canyon. Nialin and Shondiin’s mom use to live there. She lived in a dilapidated trailer positioned outside the city’s limit.
The front door faced east, towards the rising sun in the morning. Shondiin’s name means “sun” in Navajo. When their mom would get drunk she would tell the girls she named her daughter after the sun.
“When are you going to be home mom?” Shondiin sniveled as her mom opened the front door.
“When you come over the mountain” she laughed. Her own jokes made her laugh hysterically. She laughed all the way to her worn out truck. Dust swept across the girls faces, drying their tears. The moon was singing a familiar song. They watched the tail-lights zoom across the worn out desert.
Nialin rushed her little sister inside and locked the front door. She turned on the television. Through the perverted reception they could make out Jay Leno’s famous chin. She turned the volume up to hear him through the static .
“What time do you think she’ll really be home?” Shondiin was scared. Nialin looked out the window for their mom’s truck only to find the moon laughing at her. “I don’t know sis. Let’s go to bed.”She covered Shondiin with a blanket and patted her back until they both fell asleep.
The next day, when the sun peeked through the battered blinds, Nialin rushed to open the front door only to find her mother’s truck was still gone. Sunflower seed shells shimmered across the desert floor where Nialin wished her mom’s truck was parked. She carefully shut the front door and waited for her sister to wake up.
“Where’s mom?” Shondiin yawned.
“She didn’t come home.” You could hear the fear in Nialin’s voice.
“What are we going to do?” Shondiin whined.
Nialin knew the only thing they could do was wait, and so they waited. And they waited. When they were hungry they ate cereal. When the milk ran out they ate dried cereal. One time Shondiin put water in hers but it tasted nasty and she quickly threw it out.
When all the food in the house was gone they realized they had waited almost a week. Shondiin was hungry again. Nialin looked in the cupboard and saw all that was left was flour and baking powder. She was waiting for her mom to come home and show her how to make bread, but decided to make some for Shondiin instead. She convinced herself she could; she had seen their grandma make bread countless times.
“I wanna help!” Shondiin moaned.
“No Shondiin, you don’t know how to make bread.”
“You don’t either!”
“Yeah I do, I used to watch grandma.”
Shondiin tried to help every now and then but for the most part she let Nialin do everything while she watched. She watched Nialin spill flour on the counter and floor. She watched Nialin try to scoop out some excess baking powder. She watched Nialin put in more flour because she added too much water. She watched Nialin scrape the dough between her fingers and eat it.
“I want some!” she pleaded.
Nialin gave her a piece and put a skillet on the stove. Then she turned the stove on medium.
“Shondiin, you can help me roll out the dough.”
Nialin climbed on the counter and pulled two dusty cups out of the cupboard. She wiped the outside of the cups on her dirty shirt before handing one to Shondiin. Shondiin was licking a ball of dough off her index finger like a lollipop.
The girls rolled out the dough and laughed at the shapes they were making. Shondiin was cutting out molds with her cup, while Nialin was making a piece that looked like a cow. They fought over who got to heat up their tortilla first. Sooner or later they both got their chance.
On that fiery summer day, while sun beat down on their Arizona reservation, Nialin and Shondiin ate tortillas, Navajo tortillas.
“Should we save one for mom?” Shondiin asked. “Or can I eat the last one?”
“Just eat it Shondiin. I don’t know when she’s going to be home.”
The girls didn’t bother to clean after they were done making a mess of the kitchen. They waited until their mom got home the next day before they did anything else.
“What did you guys do? Make a big mess because I was gone?”
She was wearing sunglasses and smelled like a beer.
“Hey sis, do you remember you made that one that looked like a cow?” Shondiin snickered.
“Yeah I remember.” She waved her hand over the warming skillet on the stove. It was time to roll out the dough. You could smell the roast blending with the vegetables and other seasonings. Nialin turned off the oven to let the juices lock in the flavor.
“Want to help me roll out these tortillas sister?” Nialin asked.
Shondiin grabbed two cups out of the cupboard, “Of course. That’s the best part.”
Just then the house phone rang. Nialin thought about picking it up. It could be her mom.
She said she was going to call today.
Author – Millicent Michelle Pepion
(c) July 2011