“I don’t think her mother taught her anything,” whispered Josefina to her daughter, Maria Santana, both of whom sat on the back step of the house smoking their pipes.
I gazed forlornly at the large and very dead armadillo I had been given to prepare for the evening meal, wondering if I should remove the armour first or just chop through it with the wickedly sharp machete glinting in my hand. Maria took pity on me and deftly chopped the carcass into even sections, saving the head, feet and tail for soup.
Josefina clucked her disgust, took one last puff, knocked out the blackened bowl and shoved the pipe down the front of her shirt.
“Today is visiting day. I want to visit my other daughters in the village. If you can’t make yourself useful in the kitchen you can paddle.” She grabbed my upper arms and kneaded her calloused fingers deep into the muscles. Another grunt of disgust and we were off.
I concentrated on paddling hard and straight, taking Josefina’s grunts as wordless coaching tips. The banks of the river were crowded with densely packed water hyacinths jostling with the sentinel ranks of arum lilies. Further back in the jungle whippy acai palms and monolithic hardwoods towered above us, dappling the chocolate river, milk and dark. Josefina is 80 with 21 children, 61 grandchildren and 18 great grandchildren. The whole of Villa Bom Jesus, the village we were heading for are related to her. She doesn’t remember all their names, but can recite every month and year they were born.
We stopped countless times at tiny stilted houses hanging precariously to the river banks to relight the pipe. As soon as Josefina’s canary yellow Stetson hat could be seen, tiny brown bellied boys would run to the fire to grab a smoking hot charcoal stick and pass it to her. Each one duly received a cuff to the head and a sweet for their troubles.
“You do know how to prepare birds for eating, yes?” I nodded dumbly, knowing that one of the parrots or toucans crowding the trees above us was going to be my next culinary downfall. Pulling out a battered rifle from the bottom of our tree trunk canoe she drew it to her ample shoulder and fired. A single toucan fell with wings still outstretched in flight into the water in front of us. I paddled furiously then scooped up the bird in trembling hands.
“I’ve never eaten toucan before,” I said timidly to her broad back as we carried on up the river. She glanced back at me with narrowed eyes and pursed lips. “But I’m sure I can prepare it for the pot,” I added hurriedly.
“No need for you to work in the kitchen anymore, I have a new job for you. As your mother taught you nothing, let me see if your father made a better job.”
We rounded a bend in the river; the wooden village of Bom Jesus came into view. “I visit my children; you help build the new house.”
I dropped off Josefina who was greeted with squeals of delight from the rickety verandah and paddled back to the construction site. There was only one hammer, the men took laconic turns in banging in a few nails, glanced back to Josefina to check if she was watching then sat down with a demi john of homemade fire water. For me, the wrath of Josefina was enough to make me grab the hammer and start building the walls. The men watched with hooded eyes and casual flicks of the wrist in the vague direction of what I was searching for.
As darkness settled on the river Josefina came to check my progress. Lighting her pipe with a flaming twig and a healthy suck, she checked my work.
“When were you born?”
“July 1965,” I answered.
“You can never be my daughter, Julho 65, but you’ll do as a son.”