Sue pushed aside the strands of wooden beads with a tentative hand. The movement caused a gentle clatter. Hot spices, the smell of the sea and sweat greeted her. Faces that ran the spectrum turned to glance at her silhouette, framed in the tropical sun beating on her back. A single lampshade with an empty socket but the shape of a huge upturned straw umbrella filled the low, flaking ceiling.
A warm call from the bright doorway along the back wall sounded beckoning. It came from a plump woman in a mottled apron and loose dress the color of the sky over head. The few teeth in her broad smile matched the puffy white clouds at the horizon. She waved a sturdy hand and repeated the same phrase.
Sue licked her lips. Her mouth trembled into a nervous smile as she slipped into the restaurant. Patty padded in at her back, clutching the small travel back on her sun burnt shoulder.
“You think this is ok?” Patty whispered.
She gave the painting of the giant coral squid and its gleaming onyx eye nearly the size of the ragged dinner plates before the small establishment’s patrons, an equally wide eyed stare.
“I think so…” murmured Sue. Her gaze and frozen smile hovered on the plump woman.
The owner sauntered through the set of square tables on an intercept course. Another pleasant greeting bubbled out of her ample chest. Her gray streaked bun wobbled at Sue’s shoulder as she continued chattering around her smile. One of her calloused hands cupped Sue’s elbow and guided her with easy coos towards an empty table beneath the squid tentacles. She gestured to the two wooden chairs with another broad grin.
“Sit…” murmured Sue around her warming grin.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” answered Sue as she slipped into the wobbly chair. The straw bindings of the wicker construction bit into her bare legs beneath her shorts. With a wide smile she pulled her bag from her back and nestled it between her sandaled feet.
The plump woman spoke again, something funny but Sue didn’t think unkind. Her sun drenched finger poked out to the dishes of those around them most of whom were watching the two women with unveiled curiosity.
“What’s she doing?” asked Patty. She had taken the second seat across the wooden slab of the home made table but sat with her pack on her lap and tense arms coiled around the ruby bag.
“I think this is the menu…” said Sue with a frown. She followed the directing finger indicating the options as they passed over the choices once more.
An array of colors, shapes and forms filled the mismatched plates. The couple to their right shared a basket of what looked like mussels in some kind of broth. A lone gentleman, wearing nothing but a pair of swim trunks below a trim chest held a floppy tortilla above a purple glob and some kind of white fish dusted with a mustard colored spice. Between another couple a whole fish striped with charcoal sat half eaten on a green leaf. Other bowls of mashed pastes, seaweed looking salads and the remains of shells from crustaceans of all shapes and sizes littered the busy tables. Trays of flaked fish, baked fish and fish drowning in sauces joined each of the sides.
Sue found one a particularly appealing shade of emerald and pointed to it.
The plump woman nodded vigorously in agreement. She patted her round stomach and her grin spread.
“What do you want?”
“How should I know?” countered Patty.
Sue rolled her eyes and felt her tanned shoulders sag. “Just pick something.”
Patty sighed as she scanned the crowd again. Most had returned to their conversations, causing a pleasant murmur to fill the room. The man in swim trunks gave her a toothy smile and wavering thumbs up.
“I’ll have that…” Patty said in a blush tinted rush.
Sue motioned towards the man’s meal and the owner made another pleasant grunt of approval. She waddled back to the bright doorway shouting the names of whatever they had ordered.
“This is nuts,” murmured Patty.
“This is fun.” Sue shook her head. “This is real. A whole lot more interesting than those resorts. I mean look at this.” She leaned back to gain a better view of the painted squid.
“You’re nuts.” Patty let out a wavering laugh but her arms uncoiled from her bag and she lowered it between her ankles. She kept her eyes on the painting to keep them from being drawn back to see if the meal suggesting local had any other ideas.
From the back a wave of crackles and the blast of heat of a stoked fire surged into the room. A cloud of new spices flared the warm air with a tantalizing mix of sweet and sour.
Sue leaned over to pull out her bottle a third full of luke warm water when a cascade of falling metal cut through the relaxed conversations. The voice of the plump woman rose in a frightened and pain filled cry.
Sue and Patty exchanged a quick glance. With a surge of professional instinct they were both on their feet and rushing to the wounded moans.
The doorway turned out to lead to a covered awning over a set of charcoal pits dug into the beach. Half filled wooden crates and dingy plastic buckets held ingredients bound for plates. The battered pans and pots used to cook each meal however had tumbled from their precarious positions upon the grates lining the flickering embers. Between the fires crouched the plump owner. A burly young man in a stained tee-shirt and flower patterned pair of shorts bowed over her shoulders.
He looked up with a shake of his shoulder length hair. Bright whites rimmed dark, terrified eyes.
Urgent words tumbled from his thick lips. One broad hand gestured over the pots and fire while the other supported the cowering woman’s body.
Sue winced at the unintelligible flow of words and shook her head as she crouched.
“Let me see,” she said gently in the soft spoken and measured pace of her best bedside manner. She guessed his confused expression mirrored her own. The two languages were equally unfamiliar.
Patty pulled the zipper on her pack and drew out her ever present traveling medical kit. The young man looked over at the white box and large Red Cross sticker on the lid. His tone grew more urgent.
“Yes,” Sue said with an accompanying shake of her head. “We’re nurses,” she continued with a confident smile regardless of whether the man understood. “We’re going to try and help.”
He seemed to at least gather their intent. His muscular arm slid free of the woman and Sue could finally see the trouble.
The plump woman had wrapped herself around her arm. The bare flesh had already puckered from the pool of steaming oil soaking her apron.
The two women moved in quiet tandem. Their hands gentle and efficient as they treated the scalding wound. The plump woman murmured throughout the ordeal, swaying back and forth but her trembling began to ebb as Patty’s supplies and their tender care eased the burn.
Sue finally sat back on her heels while their patient gazed down at her arm. The round woman then shot her resurging smile to Sue across the sand and then to Patty on her knees at Sue’s side. The owner’s good arm reached out as thick tears dropped from her eyes.
Sue leaned forward and took the embrace and then smiled as the woman wrapped Patty in another and then gently tapped the hovering young man on his smooth cheek.
An acrid cloud rolled through the sea scented breeze and the plump woman’s wobbly bun shook. Her tear streaked face snapped to the charcoal pits. Their apparently recovered patient spoke sharply and the distracted young man jumped to his feet just in time to pull the burning tortillas off the grill.