Just a heads up, this is Chapter One of a three chapter work. The other chapters should be up in the near future.
"Two hours!" Imelda's mother shrieked when Imelda returned from the market. The other members of Imelda's family, her Tía Natalia and her cousins Gloria and Luciana, barely looked up from their activity of making lime soup. But Imelda's mother had completely halted her work to glare at her daughter. "Two hours you have been gone!"
"Sí," Imelda said slowly, "lo sé." She gave her mother a curious look and set down the jar of molasses she had gone to market to obtain. "What's the problem?"
"The problem," her mother exclaimed, stabbing the cutting board with her knife, "is that you should have been back an hour ago. How long does it take to buy molasses?"
"It was a nice day; I stopped to talk to some people," Imelda explained, still confused. When she had left her home earlier that day, the household had been calm and pleasant. But now Óscar was outside hastily plucking a chicken, Felipe was scrubbing the patio, and every female member of her family had congregated in the kitchen with the apparent purpose making a pot of lime soup as quickly as possible.
"Ay!" Her mother resumed chopping the cilantro. "Now she decides to be sociable! For sixteen years I've been asking my daughter to make chit chat with her neighbors and she chooses today to do so!" She dumped a pile of quartered onions into a pot and stuck her head out of the doorway. "Óscar! Where is that chicken?"
Óscar called back, "Almost done, mamá!"
"I don't understand," Imelda said slowly. "I thought we were having tacos tonight…"
"We are," her mother agreed. "And tamales, and chile peppers roasted with cheese, and pickled cactus, and roasted corn, and—"
"Mamá!" Imelda exclaimed. "We don't need that much food! We can't eat that much, even with Héctor."
"Héctor?" her mother dropped her spoon in the soup pot and stared at her daughter. "Is that músico coming? Ay!" She sighed in exasperation.
Tía Natalia stopped seeding a chile pepper, grabbed a pair of tongs, and fished the spoon from the pot.
Meanwhile, Imelda's face had become stony. "Yes," she said stiffly. "I told you I was going to invite him this morning, remember?"
Cousin Gloria elbowed Luciana, perhaps having guessed why it had taken Imelda two hours to buy molasses. Natalia sent her daughters a warning look and began to dry off the spoon.
Imelda addressed her mother. "I thought you liked Héctor," she said. Or to be more precise, she had gathered that to her mother, Héctor was a non-entity, whose presence elicited no reaction, positive or negative. Boys with no family and little chance of earning a stable living were not worth her notice.
"Oh, the boy's nice enough," her mother allowed. "But he's always here."
"He's been touring for a month," Imelda corrected. "That's why I invited him tonight—I thought he would have some interesting stories to share."
This time Luciana elbowed Gloria. Natalia sent them another warning look.
"Well," her mother sighed, grabbing the spoon from Natalia and resuming stirring the soup, "what's done is done. I guess you can't uninvite him. Maybe he can help out—play some love songs, help with the mood…" She stuck her head out of the doorway again. "Óscar, where is my chicken?"
"Almost done!" Óscar repeated. A stray feather wafted through the doorway.
Again, Imelda looked at her mother with confusion. "The mood?" She raised an eyebrow. "Is Javier coming?"
Javier was Gloria's fiancé. He was one of the more tolerable of the boys from town, though privately Imelda still thought Gloria was too good for him.
Imelda's mother looked at her like she was stupid. "Javier and Gloria are already engaged. What do they need a romantic mood for?"
Gloria stopped cutting the limes. "What does that mean?" she demanded.
Imelda's mother ignored Gloria, and still addressed Imelda. "The mood is for you and Mateo, of course!"
It was a good thing Imelda had already set down the jar of molasses; if she hadn't, she would have dropped it at this revelation. "Mateo?" she demanded. "Mateo Orejón? That borracho?"
Her mother squared her shoulders. "Do not say such things!"
"Why not?" Imelda demanded. "Everyone says the man is a drunk! Señor Corredor says it, and he should know!" Señor Corredor was the owner of the local taverna, and consequently saw a lot of Mateo Orejón. "Mama, I don't need you to set me up, and even if I did, I could do better than Mateo Orejón!"
"Sí, sí," her mother agreed. "Of course you can. But not right away—we have to start with Mateo!" Noticing the puzzled looks everyone was shooting her, Imelda's mother elaborated. "Right now, mija, you have a reputation as a…" she turned to Luciana. "What do the boys call her?"
"Una fierecilla!" Luciana obliged cheerfully, ignoring the glare Imelda was now shooting her.
"Sí, una fierecilla," her mother agreed. She dumped the limes into the pot and stirred a few times. "So we start with Mateo. I heard this morning he was looking for a wife. Be nice with him. Then the other boys in town will see that you are not una fierecilla and maybe they will notice how pretty you can be when you are not frowning like you are now."
Imelda's frown only deepened. "I do not need to be set up," she repeated with a clenched jaw.
"Are you engaged?" her mother demanded.
Imelda had to admit that she was not.
"Then you need to be set up," her mother concluded. "Once the boys think you are not so bad, then we try for Bruno."
"Bruno?" The last time Imelda had seen Bruno Cortés, he had been brawling with a very inebriated Mateo. "You want me to marry Bruno?"
"Of course not!" her mother tsked. "You are so slow today. We need Bruno because he makes a good living. If he desires you, everyone else sees that you are really something. After Bruno, then there is Diego."
"That bore?" Imelda demanded.
Luciana and Gloria nodded, silently seconding their cousin's assessment.
"You want an interesting husband?" her mother asked. "I'm sorry I can't find you any lion tamers to marry! Ay, so picky!" She stirred the pot so quickly that some of the soup nearly sloshed over the side. "Diego comes from a good family. If you can win over Diego, then we make our move for Rodrigo."
"Rodrigo?" Imelda repeated, her fingernails biting into her skin because her fists were balled so tightly. "Who's after him, the Governor?"
"No, no," her mother corrected her matter-of-factly. "Rodrigo's the end. You're going to marry Rodrigo."
"I am not marrying Rodrigo!"
"Not looking like that, you aren't," her mother agreed. "Gloria, that's enough peppers, mija," she waved at Gloria to stop her dicing. "Get Imelda ready for Mateo—lend her your pink dress, make her hair look like…ah…" she waved her hand, "like yours does—maybe some ribbons."
"I am not marrying Rodrigo!" Imelda repeated because she felt like her point hadn't quite sunk in. She had one more statement of defiance: "And I am not wearing Gloria's pink dress!" she added as her cousin led her away.
"What's wrong with my pink dress?" asked a somewhat insulted Gloria.
Three hours later Imelda was wearing Gloria's pink dress. Not only that, but Gloria had woven ribbons into her hair, spritzed her with rosewater, and even applied a little of the carmine powder that cousin Dolores had sent them from her trip to Mexico City.
Gloria stepped back and surveyed the result.
"Well," she sighed, "you'd be pretty if you smiled."
"I won't be smiling with Mateo," Imelda muttered, folding her arms across her chest.
Gloria sighed and put away the carmine powder. "All my hard work, wasted on Mateo, who's too drunk to care, and Héctor, who's too enamorado to care." She sighed once more. "Hasn't Héctor proposed yet?"
Imelda had frozen as soon as Héctor's name had come up. After she'd had a few seconds to recover, she glared at her cousin, who was now rolling up the leftover ribbons. "I don't know what you're talking about," she said stiffly.
Gloria rolled her eyes. "Anda ya! Your mama may be blind to it, but no one else is. Why else would he visit so often? And why else would you let him visit so often?"
Imelda stared into the mirror and adjusted the silver cross hanging around her neck. "I still think I should wear my blue dress," she said eventually.
Gloria pushed back one of Imelda's stray curls. "You look nice. Now tell Héctor to hurry up and propose. I don't want to spend my last few weeks as a señorita making lime soup for every bachelor in town."
Her mother sat her next to Mateo of course. Héctor would have wound up at the other end of the table were it not for the combined efforts of Gloria and Javier, who somehow conspired to push themselves two seats down. Perhaps it was an act of consideration, or perhaps they just preferred to sit at the other end of the table, where conversation flowed freely and naturally.
The same could not be said of Imelda's side of the table.
To his credit, Mateo did show up mostly sober, though he had a lingering stench of alcohol. He stuffed his red cheeks with food, and thought it crazy that Imelda to his right and Héctor to her right didn't seem to have appetites.
"These tamales are deliciosos!" Mateo proclaimed, and took a deep gulp from his glass of wine.
"How kind of you to say!" Imelda's mother said with a sugary smile. "Imelda made them!" she lied.
"Mis cumplidos, señorita!" Mateo said to Imelda. Bits of pork dropped from his open mouth.
Imelda mumbled some thanks before shifting herself to face her mother. "Mama, Héctor and Ernesto won the music competition in Dulzura."
Héctor was leaning forward, glaring at Mateo, either from dislike or from disgust. Underneath the table, Imelda's shoe stomped on Héctor's boot. He jumped in his seat, and let out a high-pitched yelp.
Imelda prompted Héctor again. "Isn't that right, Héctor? You won the competition?"
"Sí!" he exclaimed, slapping a nervous, wide smile on his face. "There were many, many excellent performers, but we triumphed! The crowd really seemed to like our new love song."
Imelda's mother barely glanced at Héctor. "Who doesn't love love songs?" she asked no one in particular. Then she addressed Mateo specifically. "Señor Orejón, you love love songs, yes?"
Mateo ceased gnawing his corn cob long enough to admit he had nothing against a love song.
"What was the prize for the competition?" called Luciana from the other end of the table. "Did you get money?"
Héctor confirmed that they had received some money. "But the real prize," he added, "is that this gives us entry to the larger competition in Tarascoto in a week."
"A week?" Imelda exclaimed. If anyone had been looking under the table, they would have seen her right hand release Héctor's left one. "You never told me that!"
"I told you that was the prize," Héctor insisted.
"But you never told me the next competition was in a week!"
"Imelda," Héctor said under his breath, flashing his eyes to Imelda's mother, who was offering Mateo more peppers, "we can discuss this later—"
Tío Lorenzo cleared his throat. "I heard that Señor Campos's niece is visiting him, and she comes all the way from—"
Imelda ignored Héctor's warning and her uncle's attempt to change the subject. "You just got back after being gone for a month! And you're leaving in a week—"
"—two days," Héctor unwisely corrected. "Ernesto's scheduled us five days of traveling. He wants us to hit some towns on our way—"
"Of course Ernesto has!" Imelda rolled her eyes and stabbed at the pickled cactus on her plate. "If he had his way, you'd never be in Santa Cecilia!"
"Imelda," Héctor hissed, "if we win the competition, we could get enough money that—" At this point, the only other conversation, Mateo asking for more wine, had died, and everyone was following Héctor's words. He paused, took a deep gulp from his glass, and turned to his other side. "Señorita Gloria," he said with large, fake smile, "when is the happy day to be?"
"Why do you care, Héctor?" Imelda demanded, jumping up from her chair. "You probably won't be in town for it, anyway!" She shoved her chair into the table, managing to crush Héctor's left leg in the process, and marched from the room.
Héctor winced with pain, but hurried after her. The remaining family members stared at each other in silence, and Mateo continued to drink his wine.
Imelda's mother looked back between the chair that Imelda had occupied and the chair that Héctor had occupied. Her eyes widened, then immediately narrowed, and she got up from her chair and left through the doorway taken by Imelda and Héctor.
Unperturbed by any of these exits, Mateo burped, swayed slightly in his seat, and took another tamale.
Javier was the first to speak. He turned to Gloria. "Does this mean we need to hire another musician for our wedding?"