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Without Words This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category.

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      I am awakened by a low, rhythmic thumping coming from the kitchen, accompanied by the murmurs of hens that compel me to get up. I untangle myself from my mosquito-netted bed and pad across the dirt floor to unlatch the door leading to the outdoor kitchen. The sun is barely over the lush Nicaraguan hills as I rub the sleep from my eyes. Crossing the yard littered with shovels and piles of dirt - evidence of Lorena stove construction (the reason I am living in Las Mesitas, Nicaragua for six weeks with my chapter of Los Amigos de las Americas) - I reach the kitchen to find the source of the thudding that woke me.

My host mom, Luvinda, is bent over the table pounding a mound of maza, thick dough made of hand-ground corn, into a tortilla. She looks up to greet me, asking in Spanish how I slept. I lean awkwardly against the table, watching. She’s a reserved woman, and though I’ve been here for five weeks, we’ve only exchanged a few sentences. I’ve come to dread these mornings when the rest of my host family is gone. Usually I try to avoid our uncomfortable silence, but today I am curious about what she is doing. She shapes the maza into disks that she throws onto plates in the fire, then flips and tosses them onto a tall, steaming stack. She has prepared a huge bucket full that will yield enough tortillas for everyone to have with our meals that day. I watch her shape the tortilla, then ask to try.

Her rhythm is interrupted. Sizing up my hands, she questions my ability with her eyes, then nods hesitantly. She pulls two wads of dough from the bucket and hands me one. Seeing me hold the dough awkwardly, Luvinda smiles. We begin a follow-the-leader game. She teaches me with the rhythm of her hands, the movements of her body, the nod of her chin. She slaps her dough into a circle; I bat mine clumsily, the dough sticking to my fingers. It wobbles and bunches as I mash it into what looks like a topographical map of Montana.

Luvinda shakes her head and sighs, then effortlessly reshapes my mess. She tips her tortilla onto a plate that balances over the fire. I try to put mine on but it crumbles and folds on itself. When her tortilla inflates with hot air, she flips it to reveal a perfectly browned side. I try to flip mine but burn my finger, drawing back my hand and waving it in the air. Luvinda chuckles as she flips my semi-burnt tortilla and then tosses them both onto the stack. Hands on her hips, she cocks her head as if to say, “Not as easy as it looks, huh?”

Now I’m determined to make a tortilla and grab another hunk of dough. Luvinda shrugs, and we begin again. This time I listen closely to the cadence of her slapping, joining with my own. Again, she teaches me with the rhythm of her hands, the movements of her body, the nod of her chin. We don’t talk, but her eyes are smiling. Her steady, confident thumps are calling; mine, shy and clumsy, answer. As my hands become more certain, our rolling beats rise to form a pulse. I can see that my circle of dough is almost as smooth and round as hers.

“This is why our hands are curved,” she whispers. as if sharing a secret. Her rough hand cups my soft one around the edge. We lay our tortillas side by side over the fire. They sizzle satisfactorily until I peel mine from the plate and proudly set it on the stack. I want to eat it, but it’s much more gratifying to know that someone in my family will enjoy it. I’m filled with even more pride when I see Luvinda smile her sideways grin at me.

“Ya si puedes,” she announces proudly. “Now you can.”

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category. This piece won the May 2007 Teen Ink Travel Contest.




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