|Photo via Zoom's Edible Plants|
We were heading east towards El Yunque, the lush tropical rainforest where my dad's hippie friend would be Christening his son in a river, because on this island even the hippies are Catholics. I wore an orange bathing suit that had reached its final summer, the fabric having grown thin and pilly from chlorine and rough concrete pool walls. The plastic fastener on the back had also grown loose and popped open repeatedly, but I didn't care because I was nine and had been brought to a real river in a real jungle to swim and play with cousins I only barely knew. We climbed huge boulders slick with vegetation, and jumped into the fresh water. Accustomed to pools, at first I squirmed at the thought of fish swimming between my toes in the murky depths, but soon shrugged it off after the third, fourth, fifth jump. The adults weren't really watching us, though they weren't far. Someone discovered a vine that dropped thick and strong from overhead and we grabbed it and swung and dropped in.
In the middle of the afternoon, we broke for the ceremony, and stood by watching as the baby's head was gently washed with three handfuls of fresh water from the river. One for the Father. One for the Son. One for the Holy Spirit. We broke into applause and were released once again. I lay on a boulder with a book, lapping up sun like a lizard and allowing myself to be interrupted only for the occasional treats my father offered--codfish fritters, flaky turnovers filled with cheese, and a bowl filled with quenepas.
Quenepas were always served with a warning. The tough outer shell bursts easily between your teeth with just the slightest pressure revealing a slick, fleshy pulp clinging to a pit. The texture feels almost inappropriate, but the fruit tastes of sweet lime and roses. Eating it is dangerous, since the smooth ball can easily slip down a throat, but we'd been eating them since forever and brushed off the warnings as we sucked on the juicy pulp. After a while, the tannins in the shell left the tips of our tongues feeling like they, too, had been sucked on.
Quenepas are everywhere in Puerto Rico, but in New York they're rare. So I tucked a bag of them among sandy shorts and t-shirts just before flying back. They didn't scan things quite as carefully then, and the seeded branch made it through two airports undisturbed. Back in school I told the class about the river, laying out smooth stones that I'd pulled out of the water and passing out one smooth lime green fruit to each of my friends. The teacher, a substitute with a puff of yellow hair and a southern accent, pronounced the names strangely, with a soft y and long a's, and said the word "baptism" like she'd never heard of such a thing. For a moment I questioned whether it was I who'd made the mistake; a wrong translation, maybe, or some kind of cultural difference. But the kids understood, and I knew that it was just her.
Years later I left my office in the afternoon mug of August to find myself standing in front of a box of them. Tiny green limes with just a hint of bruise all clustered on branches. The vender stared at me oddly as I hungrily shoveled large handfuls into the bag he'd given me. I brought six pounds back to my desk, dropping the pile excitedly before the coworkers who stared at me just as oddly. Stories of river and orange bathing suits tumbled out of my mouth as I showed them the way the delicate shell burst between my teeth.
"Be careful," I warned, when they finally lifted one up to their mouths. "They're dangerous."