Judith Ryan Hendricks writes of the southwest, particularly New Mexico - of food and cooking, kitchens and corn, and the dusty smell of dried chiles. This story of a foundling's search for her mother is her third, preceded by Bread Alone and The Bakers' Apprentice
“The first time I saw my mother was the night she died. The second time was at a party in Santa Fe.”
Avery James spent the first 13 years of her life in a foundling home in Alamitos Colorado, near the New Mexican border. Her best friend was Esperanza Verdug – a round person with long gray braid, snapping dark eyes, smooth brown arms, and a gold front tooth. The cook at Carson. Not a housemother or a teacher or a nurse. No degree in psychology or social work or early childhood eduction. No counseling credentials. If the truth be told, she couldn’t read or write, and her English sometimes sent me into fits of laughter.
But of all the Carson staff, it was Esperanza who always seemed to be wading through a river of kids. They’d hang on her arms, grab at her skirts, cling to her legs. She was the one who tied shoelaces, wiped runny noses, smuggled bizochitos into the library.
After Esperanza died, Avery ran away to Florales where she finds a rural haven provided by an eccentric old woman called Cassie, a curandera, or healer, who teaches her how to concoct remedies from wild plants. She lived with Cassie for many years, until the old woman died, helping in the garden and with the cooking.
Eventually she finds her way to Santa Fe and the famed art colonies. Working for a trendy caterer, she sees the portrait of a woman who bears a striking resemblance to her in the home of a client. Avery's search for her mother is revealed in flashbacks.
When she was living with Cassie, she was bitten by a rattlesnake. Recovering in hospital- "When they stuck needles in my arm I knew it should hurt, but I couldn’t feel it. I remember Cassies’ face hovering over me in a blue cloud, then her hand on my forehead.
"It was still dark, and I wondered what time it was. I started to call for a nurse, but the sound died in my throat. A woman was standing in the doorway. She was wearing a black dress with white sleeves. The multicolored beads on her dress caught the dim light from the hall and made it sparkle. She had long black hair and her face was shadows. I figures she was an angel, and that seeing her meant I was going to die. Except I didn’t think angels wore black, so maybe she was a bad angel and I was going to Hell for not believing. I stared harder, trying to see her face, but I couldn’t. She just stood there like she was watching me.
"All at once I know, and the knowing made the hair rise up all over my head.
"She was my mother."