Cheesemongers' Chorus

by Amalia Gladhart

 

 
image by  Sludge G  via  Creative Commons
 

 

Morning reveille in Miguel Vera was the province of roosters—fighting cocks and more domestic birds. Bovine bugling occurred outside of town, up or down the mountain just far enough to be out of earshot, out of mind for kids like my brother and me who knew milk came from cows, but seldom saw the animals up close. My mother knew to ask around until she learned whose cow had a new calf, who might have milk for sale, and then she'd send us out, milk can swinging, up or down the hill to find the señora ready to ladle out our daily liter. Sometimes the calf would pull up its stake and all we'd get was a sad shake of the head, no milk today. Our special pot was the same shape as the big, metal milk cans, coming in at the neck with a lid that pushed in tight, but not so tight you could swing your arms, carrying it home. We didn't have a fridge, so we boiled the milk and saved it for breakfast the next morning.

Boiling milk must be the origin of a watched pot never boils: slowly slowly forever forever. For months, we had a single burner, a little metal apparatus attached to a standing propane bottle, like a tanked-up camp stove. The cream would make a thick cap over the surface. A few frithy frilly bubbles, little ones, milk foam, would form around the edges of the cream. Lean in, it's about to happen; nothing. More bubbles. The hint of a sound of simmer? Not likely. Look out the window, look back at the pot; the cream cap is rising, inexorable, determined, rising and accelerating and if you turn off the burner exactly NOW you're done, the milk is scalded and the bugs are dead and you can set it back on the cool counter and go outside with your friends. But delay an extra second fiddling with the burner knob or reaching for the hot pad and the milk is no longer milk, it is a volcano, washing down the sides of the pot like a mudslide taking out a hamlet, taking out two hamlets, rushing all the way to the sea.

People who lived too far from town to sell their milk fresh made cheese. We had a neighbor who used to lead a pair of burros up to Altohuaca, six or seven miles from Miguel Vera, to collect cheeses from the women up there that she brought back to town to sell. Altohuaca was colder, poorer, damp and rainy—good altitude for potatoes, too cold to grow corn. Children's cheeks were chapped and scabby. We had friends there, so we'd hike up sometimes. The route was all along the road. Our parents were always a little disappointed if we didn't walk both ways, while Marcus and I plotted and schemed to get a ride. There was a chance a passing truck might give us a lift, but not too many trucks passed that way and those that did were often full—potatoes or animals or I don't know what. Mostly potatoes.

We went up once to dig potatoes with our friends. Jorge had plowed the field the day before, with oxen rented from another man he knew, so the potatoes were turned, some half visible in the dirt, others still buried. There were a couple of trowels passed around, but mostly we dug with our hands. For lunch we shared canned salmon and fresh potatoes boiled over a small fire with hot pepper and chochos, lupine seeds washed like acorns. While the mothers were getting the fire set, trying to balance the pot in the mud without smothering the flame, we kids were sent to the tiny store someone's mother-in-law owned for colas. We heaped the potatoes at the end of the rows, brushed off as much dirt as we could, loaded them in burlap sacks. There was a burro to carry them down to the road, two heavy bags at a time. We rode home to Miguel Vera in the back of a white truck with long dents along the fender and the tailgate, sitting on the hard, lumpy sacks.

Another time it was just my brother and me, hiking up with Mom to visit her friend Benjamina. Everyone was delighted to see everyone else, a los tiempos, qué milagro, come in, come in, stay for lunch. Coffee was brought to the bedroom. The single chair was offered to my mother. My brother and I sat on the edge of one of the beds. The kitchen was dark and smoky, cozy with guinea pigs grazing on scattered grass brought in from the pasture, but the main room was bright with light from a window above the bed. Benjamina was so glad to see us, and yet it felt like such an imposition, perching on the bed I'm sure they never sat on in the middle of the day, used only to sleep, while she bustled around preparing our food.

Benjamina served us sweet black coffee and heavy homemade rolls—bread built to last. I was still trying to acquire a taste for black coffee. Afternoon coffee was always black; potable or not, no one drank water. A cold drink of water with a piece of bread? You couldn't give that to a guest. My mother had explained I couldn't ask for milk. People would give it to me, if they had it, but then someone else would go without. Or they needed the milk to make cheese. But a lot of sugar goes a long way, and most people poured the coffee syrup thick.

"Look at these blankets," my mother whispered when we were alone for a moment, distracting me. "Look how tight the weave is." They were wool, blue on one side, black on the other, heavy enough to keep you warm. At that altitude, it seldom got warmer than sixty degrees, even during the day.

"Nice," I said, not really knowing what to look for, and then Benjamina was back with soup. She sat with us then, just for a few minutes, taking a low bench by the door. Mom wanted Benjamina to teach her to weave. There was another blanket, more colorful, variegated red and blue. When Mom asked, Benjamina said her daughter made it by raveling worn-out sweaters, using the yarn to weave. Benjamina talked about her children, all grown. Her husband was out in the field, he'd be sorry to miss us. It was awkward, eating in front of her that way, but she didn't stay long.

We were left to finish our soup while Benjamina went back to the kitchen. Then we heard voices and my mother went out, leaving me and my brother to finish the bread. We chewed down the last crumbs and followed her, carrying our dishes—a weird gesture, this insistence on helping, not quite appropriate, but polite where we came from and people understood that. We were outsiders with a little bit of mystique (rich country, different clothes, Good Afternoon!, is it true that in your country, people work right through lunch?) but the mystique wore off or we were allowed to shed it; when we said we were interested, people took us at our word and took us in.

We found Pilar in the kitchen, picking up a cheese. More greetings, more hugs. If she'd known we would be there, we could have ridden up on the burros. Had we been in Altohuaca all day? Had we really walked? What strong children.

My mother was fascinated by cheesemaking. By everything. What kind of rennet did they use and where did they buy it? Was the rennet expensive? How many gallons of milk went into a cheese? 

"Come along," Pilar offered, "if you've finished your coffee. I just have two more stops."

"Mom!" I hissed. She thought it was something about going with Pilar, but then she saw where I was looking, just in time. Benjamina had a chicken under her arm, ready to wring its neck and send it home with us as a gift, since all she'd had to offer us that day was soup. My mother didn't even say anything, she just turned every shade of white and then red.

Benjamina laughed like it was the funniest thing she'd seen in her life and said, "You're not used to plucking, are you? I'll send one all ready with Antonio, next time he goes into town."

"No, no, so much trouble, too generous," my mother protested, but Benjamina's son showed up on our doorstep a couple of weeks later, as promised, the chicken clean and plucked and ready for the oven. My mother made him stay to dinner.

First we had cheeses to collect. Bland and white, fresh, the disks maybe six inches across, an inch or two thick. Within a few days, they'd take on a sharp, slightly sour taste, but right at first, they were delicious, silky and mild.

The cheeses were wrapped in plastic bags and tucked into an open wooden crate. The bags were washed and reused, over and over. I remember a detergent bag especially, even the associated jingle—Deje que lave Deja! (Let Lettit do the Wash!)—but there was no soapy taste to the cheese.

Even double-wrapped in plastic, the cheeses were wet, but the cloudy liquid seeping out around the edges of the bags was whey, not water. Some women salted their cheese a little extra, which drew out even more whey as the cheeses jiggled and joggled along on the back of the burro. My mother was happy to let us eat the cheese, so I assumed the cheeses themselves weren't washed at all; when it came to clean water, my parents were sticklers, or tried to be. Sometimes good manners beat out perfect safety; sometimes it was practicality, or thirst, or the impossibility of monitoring every molecule of H2O that might approach our mouths.

My mother asked more questions, took notes. They told her they warmed the milk, but not to a boil. You don't want to boil milk for cheese, they said—the proteins change, the whey won't separate as well. She hinted around until she secured an invitation to one of the producers' homes for a lesson the following week. Did they ever keep a cheese for home consumption, or were they too valuable not to sell? How many sucres did Pilar make on each cheese? How many cheeses did she need to collect to make it worth the trip? There, too, sometimes the calf got loose, and the woman who thought she'd have a cheese to sell this week had nothing.

 My youth was wasted on me, just like everybody else's. I could have learned a lot more about weaving and cheese and building a fire in an airless kitchen and baking bread and digging potatoes if I hadn't wanted to spend my time hanging out with my friends, once I had local friends, learning sappy songs and gossiping and waiting for letters from home. I cringed at my mother's nosiness (how much money, how long, what method, with whom) but I also absorbed the fact of asking, the act of inquiry, as an act of respect. Still, in polite company, you're not supposed to ask how much the cheesemonger earns, how much her profit, unless you are writing a book, can claim a greater good.

Pilar only had two more stops, but houses weren't close together. Altohuaca was a caserío, a hamlet, not a village. Marcus and I were dragging by the time Pilar finished. We were tired from the walk, from being admired and praised for an exertion we'd have preferred to avoid, from wanting to say the right thing when it was our turn, from listening, again, with our whole bodies, a kind of muscular listening, deceptively still on the surface even when you feel as if every cell is flailing to keep above water, up in that rarified air of full comprehension and breathing. We wanted to say the right thing, but we might not know it if we heard it, even as the words came out of our mouths.

"Ride, if you like," Pilar insisted, pausing to adjust the lead burro's load. She didn't have to ask us twice. The one time I'd been on a horse, so high up, had made me nervous. This was easier. A burro's shorter. Even for kids, it wasn't too hard to climb up on their backs. Marcus was smaller, so he rode on the one with the cheese, in front of a simple wooden frame that held the crate. I remember it as a couple of wooden Xs, with the box of cheeses propped between. No saddle.

The burros didn't seem to mind, but they weren't in any hurry. Burros aren't built for speed, not loaded down with cheese and riders, and Mom and Pilar were hardly going to jog along beside us. I don't know that it was more comfortable than walking, or faster, but we felt lucky. We were glad to get off our feet, and glad to be riding, just on principle: we weren't yet at an age when exercise is an end in itself.

I remember the feeling of being up on that ridge, just before the road dipped back toward town. Plenty of daylight left to get us home before dark. Even astride a humble burro, it felt like the view belonged to me: the purpley wrinkled ridges, green-brown on the slopes, shining in the late afternoon light, sage green borders where agave took the place of fences. And then we were belting out that song, showing off again, of course, and yet protected, because no one else knew the song, no one understood the words. Until my mother started to translate.

I'm not sure how much our parents discussed their politics in Miguel Vera. A foreigner is never fully neutral. You may not have a stake in local debates, but you come from somewhere, and you come for a reason, and that means you must have some kind of opinion, even if you try to keep it to yourself. But here was my mother, with her kids singing at the top of their lungs, a song about government lies and corruption and fake stuff on TV, including the man in the mask. I don't know why it popped into our heads that afternoon, or which of us started it, but pretty soon we were singing a Malvina Reynolds song we'd learned off a Michael Cooney album.

Here's the song as I remember it: 

 

They say it's his face

but I just can't believe it

it looks like a mask that I saw in the store

it talks with deep feeling

about ending the war

and stopping inflation

and it's so fantastic

you'll cry while you're laughing

and roll

on the floor.

 

Every four years

he puts a new mask on

and each one is worse

than the one he had before. . .

 

And then we stopped, because we'd learned the song off a record and we didn't know all the words. My mother liked to make words up, inventing verses when she needed them, but I was a purist. If we didn't know the words, we didn't know the words. But that didn't mean we couldn't go back to the beginning and sing what we did know over again. I heard my mother in the background trying to translate. Pilar laughed. She had her own thoughts about corruption and lies.

We'd had another record, Nursery Rhymes for Complicated Times, and that one I did know the words to, every last one. It was a feat of memory that might have gotten us down the mountain and all the way up again. "Sing a song of sixpence. . ." I started, and Marcus chimed in right away.

 

Sing a song of sixpence

the president's a fly

if he stays in office

I think we all might die

there's no pie for anyone

it makes you want to cry

and every day more bomber planes

blaze across the sky. 

 

"¡Otra!" Pilar cheered, like an audience chanting for an encore. Her kids liked to sing, too. We'd even taken the tape recorder over to her house once and made a recording of everyone singing together, though her son complained his voice was cracking. It sounded okay on the tape. "¡Otra !¡Otra!" We were glad to oblige.

 

My bonnie lies over the ocean

my bonnie lies over the sea

pollution is all a commotion

this is what it all means to me:

dead fish, dead fish

and water that's shiny with oil, with oil,

no one can swim

because all our beaches are soiled.

 

 

My mother did her best to render the meaning for Pilar. I don't think she bothered to mimic the rhyme. "It's like 'Arroz con leche,'" she said, naming a song all the kids in Miguel Vera could sing. "But not the traditional words." Pilar thought that was hilarious. 

The highlight of the record was a version of "The Farmer in the Dell" that took the farmer through mounting debt, bankruptcy, and rising fuel costs, starting with "the farmer takes a loan" and "the farmer pays it back" and going on from there, multiplying verses until the farmer finally lost his land, the cheery refrain an unseemly contrast to so much loss.

 

The taxes are too high

The farmer buys a truck

The farmer's truck is stuck

The farmer can't buy gas

The farmer eats his corn

He eats his seed corn too

This could be me or you

So what's a guy to do?

 

Contrast or no, we were laughing like crazy. By the second chorus, Mom and Pilar were singing along. We liked it so much, we sang it again, every verse, with a full hi-ho-the-derry-o! on every one. Mom tried a quick version in Spanish, but the rhythm was hard to reproduce. No matter, it was easy enough to explain what it meant. The subject hit pretty close to home. Really, it was a sad song. Pilar wiped a tear away at one point, not from laughing. "Ricardo owned land up here," she said, "but I had to sell." She'd been widowed when her youngest, my age, was a baby.

We sang right to the border of town, right up to the city limits. Then we clammed up, not another measure, not another note.

"They're embarrassed," Pilar laughed.

But it was important to show we weren't embarrassed about riding the burros or spending the afternoon with her, only at the crazy, unguarded singing. We accompanied her on her rounds as she delivered the cheese. Each cheese she delivered, she waited for the recipient to return the plastic bags, she folded them back into the emptying box and took them home to be rinsed out and dried. It wasn't a massive operation. Ten or twenty cheeses, once or twice a week.

It was late by the time we were handing out the cheese, dusk when we returned to Pilar's house. We helped her wash the plastic bags and hang them to dry. I understood then why her house was never still. It wasn't just her kids, humming or whistling. There was always a rustle on her patio, a whisper song, the indoor air currents enough to sustain that faint susurrus of motion even if there was no wind outside. The bags fluttered like fish scales sloughed off, or leaves after they have bleached down just about to nothing, or translucent butterfly wings, all but returned to dust.

 


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Amalia Gladhart

Amalia Gladhart’s work appears in journals including Seneca Review, Parcel, Necessary Fiction, Atticus Review, Eleven Eleven and The Fantasist. Detours, a sequence of prose poems, was published by Burnside Review Press. Recipient of an NEA Translation Fellowship, she is the translator of two novels by Alicia Yánez Cossío, The Potbellied Virgin and Beyond the Islands, and of a novel in stories by Angélica Gorodischer, Trafalgar. She is Professor of Spanish at the University of Oregon.