PICANTE

Calor eased himself back into his chair, sending up a small puff of dust. He had spent all morning preparing, but it was necessary. The bowl was ready; the glass was ready; he was ready. He peered out past his porch for the boy. No sign of him nor his horse yet, but it was barely noon- the church would have just let out a few minutes before, and the boy was as dedicated to the Lord as he was to anything else- an admirable trait, but one that would fail him today. Calor and his family didn't attend the church as much as perhaps the rest of the town would have liked, but that wasn't something Calor worried about often. Regardless of what it thought, the town needed him and, more importantly, his farm.

A hoarse neigh echoed across the field- the boy was early. Sure enough, a murky shape emerged from the horizon, slowing to a trot and stopping long enough for the boy to separate from his ride. The boy walked his horse along the path in the middle of Calor's field, and removed his hat in respect. Calor tipped his own in response, and with a great sigh pulled himself out of the chair and over to the posts, where the boy was tying up his horse.

"Make sure you tie him up well. I don't want him getting close to the crops, y'know," The boy smiled and redid his knots.

"I'm sure if he tries to eat 'em, he won't like it much either- he can't handle nothin' hotter than a warm carrot." Calor laughed, but only with half of his face. His eyes were too busy studying the boy. The horse was certainly a nice one- likely his father's- but he had yet to ride it with confidence. The child himself was a bit lean, and the dust caught in his short brown hair made him hack and wheeze. A nice boy, perhaps, and certainly a devout one. He gave him three minutes.

The boy finished with his horse and clambered up to the porch. Calor had already pulled up another wooden chair, right across from his own. In between the two was a stump, with the bowl and the glass on top. Calor took his seat again, sending up another small puff of dust, and a slight cough from the boy.

"Mister Calor?" The boy sat up straight- so he was serious about this. Calor turned his head and nodded. "I asked if I could talk to you, last Sunday."

"I remember." Calor certainly did- the boy was not the first, and would likely not be the last. Not until one worthy came along would the cycle ever end. A small part of him hoped that this boy would be it; he told it to stop being foolish, and concentrate.

"And you told me to come down here, next Sunday- this Sunday- to talk to you."

"Yes?" Ask the question already, he screamed in his head as he smiled. The boy fidgeted in his chair- he couldn't bring himself to ask the question. Two minutes, tops.

Calor turned to admire his farm, and the boy accidentally released a sigh of relief. He had intimidated him, so easily? This was even worse than he'd expected. Oh well, at least it would be over quickly. His crops needed tending to, after all. He focused again on the boy, and waited. Finally, the boy spoke again.

"Your crops are lookin' mighty fine this year. Me, I can't handle nothing too spicy myself, but the peppers sure look pretty out there." Calor gave another nod, and watched the bowl out of the corner of his eye. It was true; the crops had done surprisingly well this year, even with the lack of rain. "Especially the red ones." Calor turned back and scratched his stubbly chin in interest.

"Here, let me show you something." Calor grabbed the boy by the shoulder to focus on the crops. "Look, on the sides of the field. What do you see?"

The boy stared blankly, and responded, "Well, sir, there's a bunch of green peppers on the outside, and in between them and the red peppers are a bunch of yellow ones. I don't really know what they're called, though."

"So how many crops do you see out there?"

"Well, there's the yellow, and the green, and the red, so I'd say… three, sir."

"Not quite. Now, look at the red peppers, on either side of the road. Why do you think they're separated?"

"Because… it looks pretty?"

"Because they're not the same kind. The one on the left, that is an ordinary red pepper. The one on the right, however… it is a brand new kind, never seen before anywhere else in the world. It was last summer that I discovered this breed, high up on the Parinacota Volcano, all the way down in Chile. The village nearby called it La Diablo Rosa- The Devil's Rose. I must keep the two apart at all times- they can never be close, or else someone would confuse them- and that could be quite tragic."

The boy noticed the bowl for the first time. He examined it carefully, and cautiously reached into it to pull out a thin and slender red pepper. He twisted it in his hands, the sun glinting off of its crisp skin temptingly.

"Beautiful, isn't it? Much like my daughter, wouldn't you agree?" The boy nearly fell out of his chair in surprise, and the father gave a hearty laugh. "Oh, come now. You think I didn't know what you wanted to talk about? I know my Belinda is very popular with the village boys." The boy squirmed in his chair still, as Calor continued. "I realize you are the son of a holy man, and I respect that. However, you will have to do your best to convince me that you're worthy of her hand in marriage." The boy's eyes met with Calor, who did nothing. He could not allow any act of his to be a signal- the boy had to decide on his own, to begin the challenge.

Reluctantly, the boy ate the pepper, gnawing and consuming it whole. Calor then took a pepper for himself to eat, methodically chewing and swallowing each bite. The boy nearly reached for the glass of water, but Calor's puzzled look made him reconsider. He sat back, waiting for Calor to speak further. He took another pepper and ate it. Immediately after, Calor did the same. Calor looked at the glass, then at the boy. He looked at the glass and did not drink it. The boy did the same, eating another pepper and not drinking the glass. This is how it always began- Calor had done this each time before, with each boy that came to his porch. The two of them stared silently, eating the peppers and not drinking the glass of water.

The boy struggled as another burning mouthful scorched his throat. The men in the town had warned him about some terrifying challenge he would have to endure. When he first heard about it, he had imagined that he would be forced to wrestle a bear, or to catch a fish with his teeth, or perhaps retrieve an ancient scroll from some far-off snowy mountain. He also imagined that any of those terrible things would be far more pleasant than this. His cheeks burned angrily, so much that the water flowing out of his eyes should have turned to steam. Still he persisted, and watched the old man take another pepper and calmly dissect it with his mouth. Truly, Calor was a fearsome opponent.

The peppers crunched and squealed as Calor digested them, with barely a bead of sweat on his brow. He watched the boy, foolish thing that he was, take another pepper and attempt to eat it. Calor glanced at the bowl, only halfway empty. Earlier that day, he had filled the bowl with red peppers- but only half of them were actually Diablo Rosa. Absentmindedly, he checked his watch- A minute and a half. Perfect timing.

The boy struggled to think as he leaned in over the bowl. The heat was unrelenting, threatening to beat his brains out onto the dusty porch. Just next to the bowl, silent and beautiful as a siren, lay the glass. That glass, full of cool, refreshing, thirst-quenching water. Just a sip, no, a droplet would be all, that's all… The boy had to drag his own hand back over to the bowl, before it betrayed his noble cause. Belinda was to be his bride, and if this was how he was to prove he was a man, then so be it.

Still he thought still lingered in the back of his mind that something was off. Over his shoulder laid the fields, the two red pepper crops facing off against each other during high noon, a tumbleweed rolling by on the dirt road between them, the only thing separating them- Bingo. Casually, the boy reached for the far side of the bowl, watching Calor's calculated face crack, if only for a second. The boy smiled politely. The old man wasn't the only one with tricks up his sleeves, after all.

Calor took another pepper from the bowl. A trickle of sweat careened down his face- had it always been this warm? He loosened his collar to cool himself. The boy had figured it out. It was nothing to panic about, he told himself, it would just make things more difficult for them both. If only the little brat would take the glass, then they could just end this duel like gentlemen. They could both have their drinks, the boy would realize that he wasn't worthy enough, and he could be on his way. Really, he was only looking out for the lad.

The boy swallowed another pepper. His mouth was numb enough now that it didn't matter how many were left- before he had even arrived, he had prepared for the peppers. He couldn't recall exactly when he had heard about them, but he had taken a few steps to ready for the challenge. He noticed Calor giving him a strange look, and without hesitation, the man held out his hand.

"Spit 'em out, boy." The boy tried to look confused and concerned, but it failed to move Calor. "Out with 'em, boy- now." Reluctantly, the boy spat into his hand, revealing a handful of shrunken ice cubes, nearly slivers from his constant suckling. Calor took them, and tossed them over the edge, scattering the shards over the field. He turned to the boy with an honest and sincere face.

"Neither of us has been playing fair. You know it as well as I do." With that, he took the bowl in his hand, and shook it violently. Peppers danced and glittered in the sun as they were tossed and shuffled in the bowl.

"What are you doing?" The boy asked, startled and perplexed.

"Making this an even match." Calor gently laid the bowl on the table again. "Now neither of us know which are which. That is, if you wish to continue. If you do not, I will understand, and will not think of you any lesser." The boy remained silent, rooted to his seat with a new look of determination. "Brave boy. I respect that." He raised a pepper majestically and held it, like a thin, red, crisp Excalibur. The boy picked his own to raise. "And now…for honor."

"For Belinda." The two, ceremoniously, with great pride and dignity, ate their peppers.

Belinda listened to the horrid screams from the porch below her, and huddled closer to her book. It wasn't that she minded her father's duels, only that he had to be so loud about it. She knew he couldn't handle any of those Diablo whatevers he boasted about, so when he wasn't looking, she had switched the bowl with her own; the one downstairs was filled with nothing but ordinary red peppers. She took a pepper from the bowl on her bed stand, making sure to choose one from the proper side. She tasted the Diablo Rosa and shrugged. It didn't seem all that spicy to her.