A couple of uneventful weeks went by filled with gardening and fence repairs. Daniel had proved to be a hard worker. He, Jake and Will were busy every day fixing fences at the back of our section of land. They worked until it got hot and then came home for lunch and a siesta, going back to work in the cool hours of the late afternoon. I watched Daniel grow brown and strong like Jake and Will.
One morning, Mom asked them to stay home and help us with a baking day and the boys all cheered. For them, it was pretty much just a day off. For Mom and I, it was going to be a lot of work.
After milking and chores, Dad had gone back to his office and the boys had gone out to get the fire started in the horno,16 I could already smell the cedar wood smoke as a tendril of it drifted through the open kitchen door.
I was lost in thought when Mom came into the kitchen and slipped a pile of dirty dishes into my sink full of soapy water.
“What are you daydreaming about?” she asked.
“I saw a present in the pantry,” I said, shaking myself out of contemplation.
“Who is it for?”
Mom smiled and put a finger to her lips. “It’s Daniel’s birthday,” she whispered. “We’re going to have a party for him. Can you find out what kind of cake he likes?”
I smiled and nodded. Our family loves parties. We love to celebrate anything and everything. I think it’s because there are enough of us to make a party a lot of fun. Suddenly, I thought of a gift I wanted to give Daniel and I started chuckling. He was going to be so surprised!
When Mom came back through the kitchen, I whispered my idea to her and she nodded her head, laughing.
First, we made bread dough. Lots and lots of bread dough. We prefer real sourdough artisan bread and it takes a long time to rise. By noon, the whole kitchen table was covered with little round artisan loaves rising under a light cotton cloth. On the counter, there were bread pans full of loaves. Some were banana bread, others a soft, nutty sandwich bread. Cookie dough was made and resting in a bowl, waiting its turn.17
I went out to the kitchen porch, the opposite side of the house from where the boys were working with the horno fire and started a fire in the wood burning stove. This was usually the only day of the week we didn’t use the porch stove. But today, we wanted to secretly bake a cake. The smell of the baking cake would be covered by the smell of other things baking and no one would ever guess.
After the fire was built and the stove was heating, I walked around the house to the horno. Jake was impatiently waiting for Daniel to pick up a water canon and have a water war with him but Daniel was trying to talk to Will and seemed very interested in the mud oven process. We had baked twice before with Dad but the boys had been gone working fences.
“Hey Mona,” Will said as I walked up. “It’s ready for the bread . . . just let me clean it out a little more.” Will wore heavy heat-resistant gloves and held a wire brush in one hand.
Daniel stood back a little and bent over so he could see into the oven.
“Why doesn’t the mud crack?” he asked, after glancing at me briefly. I wondered how to bring up the cake question.
“It’s been tempered with use. Besides, this big round wall is mostly full of fire brick. And it did crack a little, we plaster it with more mud every year.” Will was a little breathless, brushing the floor of the horno aggressively with the wire brush.
“I was thinking about baking a cake later,” I said to no one in particular, “Any preferences?”
“Apple Pie!” Jake shouted and shot me with a brief spurt from his canon. I glared at him.
“Your persuasion techniques are lacking.” I crossed my arms and put my nose in the air. “Besides, that’s not a cake.”
“Anything,” Will said, glancing at me as he put the wire brush down. “It’s ready now. You guys can bring the bread. Anything, Mona. Everything you make is good.”
Daniel didn’t say anything. I had felt a little awkward around him since our trip to the flea market, so I turned hesitantly and started for the kitchen door.
“I like apple pie too,” Daniel said, quietly. “But I haven’t had much homemade stuff before, so probably anything you’d make would be good.”
We all stared at him and his glance darted back and forth between Will and I.
“Have you ever had a homemade apple pie?” I asked.
“Not that I can remember,” he answered, a little stiffly. I started to smile. This was going to be fun. I forgot all about keeping the birthday cake a secret.
“Daniel,” I said, “I’m going to make you an apple pie you’ll never forget.”
“Woohoo!” Jake shouted, spraying a rainbow arch of water in the air over the house. I turned and went through the door without waiting to see Daniel’s expression.
“Apple pie,” I told Mom as I came through the door. “And the horno is ready for the bread.” 18
“Let’s get the first batch of bread in the oven first,” Mom said, “then you can start the pies while I keep working with the bread process. I can’t believe he’s never had a homemade pie before. That is sad.” Mom shook her head.
“Yeah. Sorry, I totally let the cat out of the bag.”
“Not really,” Mom said. “He still has no idea we know it’s his birthday. He might not even remember it himself. It’s been a crazy month for him.”
We scraped the round loaves of bread off the table with a bread knife and laid them on floured wooden peels. And each of us carried a bread-loaded peel out to the horno. Will opened the door of the oven as we approached and I put my peel in first, jiggling and jerking it to slip the loaves onto the hot, stone surface. We managed to fit twelve small loaves in at once.
“Check it out, Daniel,” Will said. “You can see the loaves puffing up and rising.”
“That’s awesome! Man, it smells good. My mouth is watering.” Daniel said, looking into the oven just before Will put the lid back on.
“Call us when you’re ready for the next batch,” Mom said.
We went back into the house and started making the pie crust and the crumble topping. I love to bake with Mom. It’s so fun to create good food. She got out the ingredients for me while I started mixing them in a bowl. Once the crust and the topping was made, we started dicing a bowl full of apples.
“The porch oven is ready,” Mom told me as I was pouring the apple filling into the three pie pans. “I just checked the temperature. It should be perfect for the next twenty minutes.”
“Ready for more bread!” Jake called through the kitchen screen door.
I quickly spread the crumble topping on and carried two pies out to the porch. I put them in the oven and set myself a timer. Mom was already taking the next batch of loaves outside when I came back in to get the last pie. When it was in the oven as well, I helped carry out the last batch of bread to the horno.
Outside, the table next to the horno held the first twelve loaves. They crackled as they cooled in the air.
“Listen to that,” Will held a loaf next to Daniel’s ear. “That’s the sound of good bread.”
“Can we eat some?” he asked.
“Sure.” Mom said. “I’ll bring you a bowl of butter.”
“Can I pour some milk, too?” Susanna asked. She had been playing with Anna among the straw bale gardens. They were digging up worms and putting them in a jar to give to the newly hatched chicks.
While Susanna poured up the milk, Mom brought out the butter and some saucers for the bread. I went back inside and down the hall to Dad’s office.
“We’re having fresh bread and butter at the outside table,” I told him. He smiled at me and stretched.
“Ah . . . that sounds great! I’ll be there in a minute.”
When I stepped back outside, Daniel had a look of rapture on his face. What is it with guys and fresh bread? I thought, chuckling. He looked up at me.
“There’s no way any pie on earth is going to beat this,” he stated emphatically. “You should save that pie for another day when there’s less competition.”
“Maybe I will,” I replied, not meeting his eyes. I buttered myself a chunk of the hot bread and sat down on the bench across from Jake.
Will was shoveling the second batch of loaves out onto the table. Small loaves bake quickly in 500–800 degrees. The moisture inside the loaves expands very quickly, making them pop up, round and full of moisture-pockets inside. Then the outside becomes hard and crisp as the sugars in the wheat caramelize and turn the crust brown.
“What else is there?” Will asked Mom.
“A batch of banana bread and after that, the cookies. Then a little reheat while we get the pizza toppings ready. Hopefully, we’ll all still be hungry.”
“Daniel and I can put the cookies on the pans.” Jake offered.
“I’ll get the banana bread,” I said.
After the banana bread was in, I took the pies out of the oven and put them in the pantry to cool.
Dad joined the boys at the table and moaned and groaned over how good the bread and butter was, as though he’d never had it before.
“Men and bread,” I said, laughing.
“This—” Will exclaimed, taking a bite of butter with bread on it, “Is the way to a man’s heart.”
“Through his stomach? No—you don’t say!” Mom rolled her eyes.
Daniel laughed and measured a ball of cookie dough he was rolling between his palms against one already on the pan. He looked like he belonged there, between Dad and Jake. Anna was standing on the bench behind him with one hand on his shoulder and one on Dad’s. I watched him sneak a piece of cookie dough into Anna’s hand. She leaned forward and around his head in order to look into his face and smile.
“We’d better re-fire the oven and let it sit for a while before we make pizza,” Mom said. I don’t think anyone is going to be hungry for a few hours.”
Will nodded. “We’ll take a break after the cookies are out. I’ll keep the oven warm until you’re ready, Mom.”
After the bread and butter lunch, the boys went off to the shop. I put Anna down for her nap and then went to visit Grandpa.
He was inside his cabin but the door was open and he heard me coming up the steps.
“Come in, come in!” he called.
Grandpa was standing at his little table with a pestle in his hand. The stone molcajete,19 on the table was full of herbs he was grinding with the pestle.
“I’m making my tobacco mix,” he said. “The mullein leaves are just right this morning. The osha is fresh. The horehound is in there too. It will be a good mix . . .” he paused and sniffed.
“What did you bring me?”
“Fresh bread, out of the horno, Shinalí (paternal grandfather.) And some butter.” I put my offerings on the table and Grandpa sat down immediately, picking up the small, warm loaf.
“Ahye’he!”(thank you) he exclaimed. “I love fresh bread.”
“I know,” I said, smiling and began grinding the herbs.
“Grandpa, it’s Daniel’s birthday and we are making him a surprise apple pie and party. I need your help with a present for him.”
Grandpa liked my idea and pitched in his own contribution to help make it the perfect gift. He told me he was too tired to come up to the house for the party but to tell Daniel Happy Birthday for him. I stayed for a while, until I knew it was time to start making the pizzas and then hurried back to the house.
Mom and Susanna were carrying bowls of toppings outside to the table near the horno. Dad had taken Will’s place, working the fire.
“Sorry I’m late. I was visiting Grandpa.”
“You’re just in time!” Mom said, and then whispered. “Go get a pie, light the candles and bring it out.”
The boys were just coming down the path from the shop. I wondered what they’d been doing all afternoon.
I went into the pantry and selected the best looking apple pie. It was still warm. How will it look with candles? I wondered. Then I carried the pie out to the table in the dining room where I carefully inserted fifteen candles all the way around the rim of it. I had to bury them deeper than usual to get them to stand up straight but when I was done, it looked fine. I knew it would taste great too. I picked up the apple pie and walked slowly to the back door.
I paused in the doorway, waiting for Mom or Dad to look up and see me. Everyone was putting together their own personal pizzas and Dad was shoveling them in and out of the oven. His face was red but he was smiling and laughing.
Daniel saw me first. He glanced at me and then away, and then back again. Then he saw the pie with the candles on it in my hands. He stood up and stared at me, looking from my face to the pie with a question in his eyes. I smiled broadly.
“Happy Birthday, Daniel,” I said, just loud enough for him to hear. Jake, in spite of being the loudest person on earth, has great hearing as well. He turned toward Daniel and exclaimed, “It’s your birthday?” Then he roared “Happy Birthday!” so that everyone heard and turned around. Dad started singing and we all joined in.
“. . . Happy Birthday tooooo yooooou!”
Anna was squealing and clapping, and Susanna was jumping up and down. Daniel’s face had that curious, impassive expression again.
“How did you know it was my birthday?” he asked, looking at Mom and Dad. Everyone was quiet, unsure of what to say or do since Daniel seemed so ill at ease. I put the pie down in front of him and he looked up into my face with unseeing eyes.
“I used to write your mother,” my Mom said. “She was my friend.” Daniel turned to look at her in surprise. It was so quiet for a moment, I felt like something would break or explode.
“I miss her,” Mom said, smiling gravely at Daniel.
“I miss her too,” Daniel said, blinking rapidly but still staring at Mom. She nodded at him and I wondered if they remembered the rest of us were standing there waiting. Then Daniel breathed and smiled. “Thank you,” he said, in a small voice.
“Pie!” Anna squealed. “Pie! Pie!” And everyone started laughing.
“Pizza first,” Mom said. “And presents.”
“Presents!” Daniel exclaimed. “No way!”
“Yes, way!” Dad put the package I had seen in the pantry down in front of Daniel. “We like to party around here. And give presents.”
Will put a small package down next to Daniel as well.
“I didn’t know it was his birthday!” Jake protested. “Nobody told me! You guys should have told me!”
“You can’t keep a secret.” I said scornfully, laying my brown paper package down next to Will’s.
“This is from Grandpa and I,” I told Daniel when he looked up at me.
Dad and Mom had given Daniel a pair of work boots. He came wearing sneakers and they were much worse for the wear. Will gave him a multi-tool pocket knife. Daniel opened my present last of all.
In the wrapping paper was a beaded leather bag Grandpa had given me. Daniel opened the bag and peered down inside.
“What is it?” he asked, dubiously.
“Herbal tobacco and cigarette papers,” I said, hiding a grin.
Daniel hooted as loud as Jake did and everyone started laughing.
“You gave me tobacco and cigarette papers! I can’t believe it! That’s great. I can’t wait to show this to my friends . . . ” his voice trailed off. “Or maybe not,” he said. Then he grinned again. “Thanks, Mona.”
“Grandpa says ‘Happy Birthday’ and he can show you how to roll a cigarette tomorrow if you want.”
We were eating the pie when Will announced that he could hear the phone ringing in the truck. He ran off to answer it.
“It’s for you. It’s your dad,” Will called to Daniel. “Just go sit in the truck and talk as long as you want.”
“Thanks for the pie, Mona,” Daniel told me, standing up. “You’re right. I’ll never forget it. It’s the best pie I ever ate. And . . . thanks everybody. That was awesome.”
He seemed nervous suddenly and reluctant to go, but he disappeared around the side of the house without another backward glance.
We all lingered around the picnic table, eating pieces of pizza crust and leftover pie, talking, laughing and enjoying the evening. Mom put a big pot of beans and meat in the horno to cook overnight. In the morning, the oven would still be warm enough to dry herbs.
Thunder rolled overhead and lightening flashed on the hogback behind Grandpa’s house.
“Time to clean up,” Dad announced, getting to his feet. “More rain. Dad tells me that this is the last of it for a while. How he knows these things is beyond me.”
We carried dishes and leftover pizza into the house. Mom had already bagged and stored all the loaves in the pantry.
Miner was waiting on the porch for all the leftover pizza crusts. He wagged his tail and whined, moving around fretfully.
“What is it, Miner?” I asked, “Are you afraid of the lightening?” I looked out into the dusk. The truck door was standing open but I didn’t see Daniel inside. I walked down the steps and over to the truck. It was empty. The phone was laying unplugged on the seat. I plugged it back in and looked around. It wasn’t like Daniel to leave things this way.
I went back into the house. Jake and Will were lighting the lamps.
“Have you seen Daniel?” I asked. “He’s not in the truck.”
Jake went to check his room and came back shaking his head.
“Maybe he went for a walk,” Will commented.
“He better come back soon, we’re about to get a pretty good storm,” Dad said, looking out the front door.
But Daniel didn’t come back soon.
It got dark and it started to rain and thunder. Will searched the shop, Jake checked the barn, Dad drove down the road in the truck and Mom went with an umbrella to check with Grandpa, who was already in bed asleep. Daniel was nowhere to be found.