Mama Elena said that my grandmother was born silent and cold. She said that my grandmother was born curled so tightly into herself that the midwife couldn't find her bottom to slap it. She said that my grandmother was born small, that my grandmother would always be small.
That is not how my grandmother was born.
My grandmother was born on the back of a horse. My grandmother was born with her naked breasts pressed against the wool and the buttons of a División del Norte uniform, with her thighs scraped red by the hair of the horse, with her long hair caught in the bridle. My grandmother was born to the happy songs of her soldier, to the raised arms of the peasants as they rode through villages, to the tears and anger of her distant mother.
My grandmother was born in a revolutionary camp.
Bean Soup for Fifty Soldiers
5 kilos dry black beans
2 spoonfuls of salt
1 spoonful of pepper
2 spoonfuls of ground chili pepper
Her first step in the revolutionary camp was hesitant. She was unsure of her footing, of her welcome, of the men who stared at her naked legs below her soldier's cape. She was not to learn until later that this was only a minor guerrilla camp in Villa's army, that these soldiers were given only poor weapons and poorer food, that they would skirmish with Huerta's soldiers only to distract them from Villa himself. Then, she did not know, and so she was afraid to speak to the men she faced, the men who sat around the campfire drinking atole.
"This is Gertrudis. She wants to join our camp," Juan said, his voice behind her and high above her head. She thought there might be mockery under his words.
And indeed, the men laughed. Gertrudis flushed with anger and embarrassment. One of them put down his bowl and lit a cigarette, bright against the darkness around the camp. "I am Colonel Martínez; I am in charge of this division. And this division doesn't keep soldaderas. No women can keep up with our travels; we live off the land."
"I will keep up," she said, her back straight, her feet planted firmly in the mud around the campfire. "I will keep up, or you can leave me behind."
"Ah," he said, hearing her voice. "You had a cook and a nursemaid and a rancho all your own; you slept on silks. And yet you say you will work for Villa's army?"
"I am here for the land and for the people and for the constitution," she said. "I will cook for the camp. I will wash the uniforms and the dishes. I have always washed the dishes."
Colonel Martínez shook the ash off his cigarette. "Ah, well. Your nakedness. We only have dead men's uniforms."
"Tell me where they are," Gertrudis said.
She followed their directions in the dark. She walked three miles out across the valley until she stepped on a body in a battlefield. She pulled trousers and a jacket from the bloated skin of a young boy, boots from another, ignoring the stench and the wetness below her hands. She rolled the trousers up three times and walked back to the campfire. She would not leave; they could not make her leave.
"We march tomorrow," Colonel Martínez told her. "You'll carry the kitchen, make us dinner."
Nacha and Tita had done all of the cooking for as long as Gertrudis could remember. She knew no recipes, knew nothing about how to stir or measure or grind the food. But she said, again, "I will cook for the camp."
Juan had gone while she was walking. She didn't try to find him. She slept by the warm red embers of the campfire, rolled in Juan's old cloak, waking every time the guard changed.
She woke as soon as the sun came up and began to dismantle the camp. She carried the heavy pot to the stream, and scrubbed out the dried atole with sand and gravel. She wrapped the mano and metate and the spoons and bowls and knives in her cape and placed them in the soup pot. She covered the ashes of the fire and then sat beside her pot, waiting for the soldiers to leave.
She carried the soup pot fifteen miles that day. The hard handle cut into her shoulder, and the wide lip of the pot bruised her hip with every step; she was marked by the revolution.
When they reached the new camp, she set up her pot by the fire and looked at the bags of food at her feet: dry beans, a few vegetables, a bag of salt, of pepper, of chili powder. A stack of tortillas. All she knew of cooking was what Tita had told her when they were children: the frustration of powdering and chopping and stirring.
She poured the beans out onto the wooden metate, pounded at them with both hands on the mano until they split and fractured and powdered, and put them in the pot with water, salt, pepper, and chili powder. She cut the handful of vegetables, and put all of them in the pot too. She stirred the dark liquid for two hours, and she sang as she stirred: the verses of the corridos that her mother would never let her sing, the verses that called for the death of Huerta or revenge for the murder of President Madero.
She sang as she stirred, and she cried for the soldiers who would not come back from battle. Her tears were hot when they poured out of her eyes, and they steamed as they hit the soup.
Her song mixed with the bean powder, her tears mixed with the onion, and she stirred a soup that made every man brave.
When she could chew the beans in the soup she called around the camp for dinner. She remembered the rules of Carreno's manual of etiquette only vaguely, as if from some other life, not two days ago; she drank her soup from the bowl, ate her tortillas with her fingers, let the men serve themselves.
Whenever she cooked her soup, the men laughed and said "better stale bread than none." They told her she should use more coriander, more ham; they told her she should grind the beans more finely; they told her she should stir more vigorously, but they ate every drop of the soup.
They always fought better the next day. They said that they felt warm, strong, tall, that they could take on any of the trained soldiers of Huerta's army. They left regiments dead behind them. For the first time they brought all their comrades back from the battlefield, and Gertrudis cried over their wounds and stitched them with the hair that she had chopped off and saved after her second day in the camp.
Men and boys came to join their camp after they took out a second regiment. They brought the old muskets and rifles from their fathers' war with the Americans.
"We don't have new guns for them," Colonel Martínez told her over his soup one night, "but Villa's army has no way to get the old powder."
"I will make gunpowder," Gertrudis told Colonel Martínez. "If you get me the ingredients, I will make it."
"Will it be as chewy and salty as your soup?" he asked, but when they raided a farm he brought her sulfur and saltpeter.
Gunpowder for Long Guns
1 kilo sulphur
1.5 kilos fine charcoal
7.5 kilos saltpeter
Gertrudis made her gunpowder on the same old wooden metate that she had used to grind beans. Her movements were more precise, her hands more sure, her powders more fine when she ground charcoal than when she ground beans: this was what her body knew how to make. She had never heard the recipe, but she knew what to do.
She collected charcoal from the fire every night and powdered it until it was fine and clean. She shook in the bag of sulphur, and leaned over the metate, down on her knees in the dark away from the sparks of the campfire. She ground for hours until the sulfur and charcoal turned a uniform gray and she could add the saltpeter.
She didn't sleep then: she just kneeled and ground, rotated the mano and ground again, until her wrists ached and her eyes were red and the powder was fine enough to fly into the air and into her lungs when she breathed. She never told the men, but the gunpowder flew into her blood, and her blood into the gunpowder, too, her fingers cracked and dry from the scrape of the mano.
Every batch of gunpowder that she made worked perfectly, and so she gave up the cooking and ground saltpeter every day.
The old men and the young boys won battles against new rifles, against trained soldiers. They thanked her for the powder they put in their horns, and then killed Huerta's army's with it; they took over a garrison and left only dead men behind.
She put away her metate on the day that they took over the garrison, wrapped it in an old flowered scarf and placed it in the bottom of the old soup pot with the spoons and the bowls. She would wash off the charcoal and use the metate to make bean soup tomorrow: now they had new Mauser rifles stolen from the federal armies, new magazine-loading ammunition. They would not need the old muskets anymore.
But the men kept using her gunpowder. They said that they had never before used muskets that misfired so rarely, that aimed so accurately, that handled so smoothly. They began to say that they had muskets that wanted to fight, to call the old muskets courageous and daring.
She pulled out the metate, shook out the scarf and tied her hair back, and ground again, and again, and again.
Then they ran out of old shot, and she put the metate in the bottom of the soup pot once more: they would stop using the gunpowder now.
Colonel Martínez found her the next day and handed her a barrel of lead wheel weights.
Lead Shot for Long Guns
1 piece of metal grate
5 kilos lead
a half-barrel of candle wax or soapy water
Gertrudis melted lead in empty coffee tins at the side of the camp. She wore the old flowered scarf over her nose and mouth.
She had punched holes with a nail in an old cooking pan: thirty tiny holes for the lead to pour through. She held the pan above a barrel of soapy water with one hand, and poured the lead through with the other: tiny round drops of lead rained down past her face into the barrel. The lace on her scarf fluttered out at the lead as she breathed.
After she had poured all the lead, she would empty the barrel through a piece of cloth, the cool round lead shot settling together in a pile. She picked through the shot every time, looking for imperfections, but every bullet was always perfectly round.
And every bullet Gertrudis made hit an enemy soldier. Her father had always said that muskets were imprecise, that a man couldn't aim with a musket, but she never saw it happen. She saw perfect regiments and perfect aim and perfect destruction.
The men began to bring her bullets back to her, pulled from the chests of dead soldiers. She melted down the lead and made it kill again.
She was often in the camp alone, pouring lead or grinding saltpeter. She sang and waited for the soldiers to return, to clean their muskets near her as she worked, to tell her what they had done. They left no guards behind with their soldadera and her tins of lead, with the sleeping tents and the munitions tents.
Gertrudis stopped singing one day when she heard quiet all around the camp: more quiet than she had ever heard before. The valley was filled with silence and stillness; she didn't hear even the distant pío pío of chicks crying in their nests. She stood motionless, held her breath, listened with her whole body, and then heard it: a quiet footstep.
There were soldiers coming, and they were not her men, who always came back to camp boisterous and laughing.
"They are coming for the guns," she said to herself, and she took hold of the musket propped up against the barrel of candle-wax and ran for the munitions tent.
She braced herself between the guy ropes in front of the door. She had only one musket, one shot, but her backbone was a steel saber, her knees were lead shot, her blood was sparking gunpowder. She was as enflamed by the approach of the federal soldiers as she had ever been by Tita's cooking, by Juan's embrace. She breathed the heat in her blood out across the musket, felt her breath leave through the barrel with the single shot. The bullet glowed red-hot; it sped through ten soldiers and out of the camp, did not stop until it hit the side of a hill.
She reloaded while her attackers stood stunned, her hands quick on the lead shot. She aimed again, and shouted out at them: "This is our land! Our liberty!"
They ran before she could fire again.
Her soldiers returned to find her standing before the munitions in her dirty uniform, the musket braced against her shoulder, ten men dead at her feet.
Colonel Martínez took off his hat as he approached. "How many shots?" he asked.
"Only one," she said, and her smile was sharp. "They wanted the rifles. But they belong to Villa's army."
"So do I," said Colonel Martínez, "and so should you."
He pinned captain's bars to her shoulders that evening, his hands cool against her burning skin. "The second squad is yours, Captain."
She took a rifle in her hands, looped the magazine over her shoulder: she would make no more lead shot. "There's another garrison at the other end of the pass," she said. "I think we can hold both of them for General Villa."
Colonel Martínez saluted her as she marched out of the camp. "Yes, I think you can."