Té de Canela (SPRING 2016 FICTION CONTEST WINNER)
Angela studied her tía Lupe’s brown eyes, noticing how the thin lines around them eased outwards like sun rays. The wrinkles above her forehead, which yesterday cracked and dried her withering skin, now soften and brighten her face. And even though her tía’s eyes drowned in tears when she spoke to her comadres, their light enthralled Angela.
She had watched her aunt hold court in the dining room most Sundays since she had moved in to live with her and had often wondered why the women gathered there. Angela had always considered the women chismosas and her tía’s house the epicenter of the East L.A’s gossip.
But this was the first time Angela had been allowed to sit-in on one of her tía’s sessions and she was beginning to understand the pull her tía had on the women from the neighborhood. Angela had watched them gather there for years, had glimpsed at the gathering group through the window when she played in the front yard with her prima. And then when her mother left her under her tia Lupe’s guardianship, her curiosity for them grew.
Angela watched as her tía took the seat at the head of the table, basking in the women’s watchful gaze. Loss suited her, Angela thought.
The women were at the table now, her tía’s grand cherry-wood vitrina a backdrop. Inside its wood-frame and glass doors were pieces of the family’s history on display: photographs of baptisms, first communions, quinceañeras, church weddings, and a framed obituary. There were leather-bound Bibles that had been acquired over time for various reasons; there were also candles and small statues of saints and other Catholic figurines. On its own shelf was a battery-powered Virgen de Guadalupe with its blinking red, green, and white lights around the virgin’s veil. The lights blinked to the room’s placid tempo, “la calma después de la tormenta,” her tía would have said if she had been herself. The small dining room was darker than usual, perhaps dimmed for the occasion.
Angela was perched at the table waiting to hear the end of her tía’s story. But every time a woman arrived and joined them at table, her tía would pause to pour the woman a cup of cinnamon tea. In spite of her grief, her tía was a good host, making each of the women feel noticed, even though the evening was about her.
“How old was the girl?” a woman with short puffed-up hair asked.
“Gaby? She was 25,” said Lupe.
“My age,” Angela said, surprising herself. She wasn’t sure what had prompted her to speak, probably her impatience. She looked down at her cup and noticed flecks of cinnamon sticks floating in the maroon-tinged water. She didn’t know the women very well, in spite of knowing them for several years; their hair had thinned, their waists were larger, but the way they looked at her tía had never changed.
“She was so young. Pobresita,” said the woman with the red puffed-up hair.
Angela’s tía nodded and finally resumed her story. “There was a brown casket at the center of the room, except it was bright and shimmered like gold. And then I noticed that there were people in the room, some standing near the casket, crying, others talking. A woman dressed in white approached me and told me that the casket was for my son.”
Her tía paused.
The women gasped and one of them said, “Dios mío,” and crossed herself. The others crossed themselves, too, except Angela and her tía.
The women remained silent. The sound of boiling water from the kitchen made its way into the dining room, and because the aroma of cinnamon had permeated the small house they hadn’t noticed that the tea was ready. The sound of laughter of the women’s children playing in the backyard became distinct. Angela wondered if the women were pulled out of the moment. She wondered if their children’s laughter caused them to think about their husbands and about the dinner they had left for them on the stove, and how at the end of the night they would return home, tuck their children in bed, tidy-up their home before going to sleep. She wondered if the women would lay in bed that night and think about her tía.
On the window, Angela noticed the blinking of the virgin’s small lights, a reflection. Its steady rhythm kept time, and caused her to feel time inching forward.
“I couldn’t see her face,” Lupe said. “I asked her: ‘how do you know that?’” Her eyes and nostrils widening with anger. “She had no answer for me, but I knew with certainty that she was telling me the truth.”
“When did you have this dream?” the woman who had arrived last asked, as she leaned backwards to adjust the blanket wrapped around the sleeping baby in her arms; her nieto.
“Mid-September, I think,” Lupe said for the third time that evening.
“It was a sign, a warning,” said the woman who had arrived last, her nieto still asleep.
“I was afraid for my son. And I tried to tell my husband about it, but he wouldn’t have anything to do with my dream. He fears those dreams,” tía Lupe said.
Angela wanted to roll her eyes at the women. She didn’t believe in their superstitions or care much for their conclusions about her tía’s dream. If her tía had had such a dream, it was because the family had known for some time that Gaby was sick and that death was her shadow. But Angela couldn’t tell the women this because she didn’t want to be excluded.
None of the women understood what Gaby had gone through or knew about the chemo trips or the dreaded doctor visits. Angela had been there, had kept Gaby’s secret. It enraged Angela to hear the women refer to her friend as pobresita. There was nothing poor or pitiful about Gaby.
“I think the tea’s ready,” Lupe said, beginning to rise from the chair.
“I’ll bring it, tía,” Angela said. Her tía thanked her with a smile and asked her to bring more sugar.
Angela pushed her seat away from the table, as far as it would go. She had squeezed into the corner seat, the vitrina behind her and a wall on her left. The women had scooted Angela toward the corner seat when they took their usual places at the table. Two women sat on her right, the one with the puffed-up hair and her tía Lupe’s cousin. They rose to let Angela out, their movements were slow, but their presence thunderous. Standing near them, as she passed them, Angela suddenly felt small and out of place.
She walked into the kitchen toward the stove. Angela opened a cupboard and noticed on the highest shelf two clear zip-lock bags filled with cinnamon sticks. The bags were crammed-in next to the dried chiles and hojas de maíz. She took a jar with raw sugar from the first shelf and placed it on the azulejo countertop. Angela realized that her tía had been preparing a lot of cinnamon tea those days.
A few months prior, her tía had heard Doctora Isabela on the radio discussing the health benefits of eating calf liver. Her tía tuned in religiously. Some time after that, her tía had convinced Angela to drive her to the nearest Whole Foods, which was an hour north of East L.A., so that she could buy organic calf liver. And now Angela wondered if Doctora Isabela had played a role on the sudden appearance of cinnamon in her tía’s kitchen.
After closing the cupboard, Angela walked over to the stove, where the brooding tea kettle sat on a dark stove-grill-top, and she turned off the stove’s only blaze. She picked up the kettle by its handle with her right hand and reached over for the jar of sugar with her left, and walked toward the room where the women sat. She caught strands of fleeting words as she approached the kitchen door. The words were familiar: corrupción, violencia, and presidente Peña Nieto, but as she pushed the door open, the women’s voices hushed. She didn’t understand why every time they talked about México it was a big secret.
Angela tensed and feigned a smile. She placed the tea kettle and glass jar on the mantle. In procession, the three women rose from the table to allow Angela to take her seat at the end. The woman with the puffed-up hair, who had never directed a word at Angela, placed her heavy hand on her shoulder and smiled at her. Angela read “pobresita” in her eyes and it made her angry.
Tía Lupe refilled every cup on the table and resumed her story. “So, I asked the woman in white: ‘how do you know that?’ And the woman in white said, ‘I just do. And if you want the deaths in your family to stop, you have to give them cinnamon tea.’ And this was back in September when my brother was sick. His high cholesterol had knocked him unconscious at work. He gave us quite the scare.”
“But the woman said that the casket was for your son,” a soft-spoken woman said. She sat across from Angela.
“I know,” said tía Lupe. “And for months, before Gaby was hospitalized, I was afraid to answer the phone, afraid that it would be a call from a hospital or the police. It wasn’t until the girl was hospitalized that I discovered the true meaning of the dream. But by then it was too late.”
“You can’t blame yourself,” the woman with the soft voice said, and the others agreed by nodding. Tears streamed down tía Lupe’s face. The women sat in silence for some time.
Angela didn’t understand why none of the women went to comfort her aunt, how they could watch her fall apart like that. She wanted to go to her tía, to hug her and cry with her, but she was in the corner. Eventually, a woman with streaks of silver in her long black hair placed her large hand over Lupe’s freckled hand, making it disappear beneath her squeeze. Their gold bracelets clinking as one hand lulled the other.
“If I had known sooner, I could have done something,” tía Lupe said, her chin trembling. “I could have slapped some sense into my son and finally get him to marry Gaby. She wouldn’t have died from a broken heart. He knew she was dying. Why couldn’t he just marry the girl, at least to appease her before death.”
Angela held back her tears. Anger continued to stir inside of her. Angela’s cousin, Victor, had been with Gaby for six years. He had left her when Gaby was diagnosed because he hadn’t been able to deal with the news. During remission, the two were back together.
Why Gaby had forgiven Victor, Angela couldn’t understand. One day, Gaby had told Angela that she knew that everyone was watching her and that God would want her to lead by example. Instead of being sad, she had decided to be strong. Instead of being angry, she had decided to be joyful. Instead of giving up, she had decided to fight back. And forgiving Victor was what God would have wanted her to do.
“No one knows what might have been going through his head,” the woman who had arrived last said, as she rocked the baby in her arms. “I’m sure he suffered too.”
“But this will weigh on his conciencia for the rest of his life,” tía Lupe said. The women were pensive.
Angela repeated the woman’s words: he suffered too. But how? Her cousin had pretended that everything was okay. The cancer had returned and yet, he continued to take Gaby to dinner on the weekends, and bring her home for the holidays. Shouldn’t Gaby have wanted to be with her own family? The two had spent so much time together those last months that Angela was beginning to feel like she didn’t know Gaby anymore.
The front door opened, no one had heard the fumbling of keys. Victor stepped in the room and saw them at the table. He must have forgotten it was Sunday.
“Buenas noches,” he said to the women. They replied, some with a nod, others feigned a smile. “I’m sorry. I thought no one was home. The house looked dark from outside.”
Angela wondered if Victor suspected that he was the topic of conversation. She looked at his eyes, they looked swollen, and she wondered if had been crying. He didn’t cry at the wake nor the funeral.
“Te sirvo té, mijo?” tía Lupe said to her son.
“No, thank you,” he said. “I’m going to sleep. Have a good night, señoras.”
“Good night, mijo” tía Lupe said.
Angela wanted to get up from the table, she wanted to get ready for bed, too. It was still early, but the sun had set several hours ago; it was that time of the year, when it gets dark early.
“You know, something similar happened to my husband’s brother,” the woman who had held tía Lupe’s hand said. “His girlfriend was diagnosed with cancer, but it was too late to treat it. So my husband’s brother married her, no hesitation.”
Angela wondered why the woman had said that. It didn’t make her tía feel better. The women became quiet, Angela saw their jaw muscles tighten, as they pressed their lips. Only their eyes moved to each other’s.
“What I mean is that perhaps your son didn’t want to marry her out of pity. If it didn’t come from the heart, that’s what it would have been. Pity,” the woman said.
Some nodded. Angela agreed, but wondered why her cousin had not wanted to marry Gaby. What was he afraid of?
“Lupe, maybe she’s right,” said the woman who had arrived late, the baby now stirring in her arms. “You can’t ask someone to make a commitment they’re not ready to make, no matter the circumstances.”
Some women agreed, their nods more assured than before.
The baby began to cry and the woman who arrived last pulled out a bottle from her bag and fed the baby. Once her nieto had quieted, she continued, “We can’t sit here and pretend to know everything. We can’t change what happened. Whatever happened, it was God’s plan.”
“Gaby died with a broken heart. He knew she would die,” tía Lupe said. She raised her gaze from the empty cup in front of her to face the women, her gaze moving from face to face. Angela could see the sincerity in her tía’s eyes. She had loved Gaby.
The women began to fuss at the table. The room smelled like cinnamon. Tía Lupe lifted the tea kettle and offered the women refills. Some pushed their cups to be refilled and others shook their heads.
The laughter of children had quieted and Angela wondered where they were. She wanted to get up to check on them, but she was stuck. She looked at her cup, at the flecks of cinnamon that had settled at the bottom. Angela picked up her spoon and stirred the tea, slow at first and then faster. She removed the spoon and watched as the cinnamon flecks swirled and swirled and then settled.
Casandra Hernández Ríos received her MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction, from CSU Long Beach. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and Journalism from the same school. She is Senior Managing Editor at The Offing magazine, a channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Fiction Editor at indicia. Her work has appeared in Verdad Magazine and American Mustard. She teaches at Golden West College and East Los Angeles College.