A Taste for Eggs By Chaltone Tshabangu
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A Taste for Eggs
By Chaltone Tshabangu
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Click here if you'd like to exchange critiques
It’s been three years now, and strange as it may sound, I miss my cousin. My wife laughs and says that I’m getting old. That may be so, but there is no way that aging can explain why I have been thinking about him so much of late. Perhaps she is right, for there is a part of me that finds it inconceivable to think of Fafi with fond memories. The last time we were together, he was icily polite, which, in retrospect, was better than this three-year silence.
Three years ago, I sat on this very log, under this same mango tree, thinking about asking for a small pair of scissors so that I could clip the grey hairs sticking out of my nostrils. But repeated sips at my home-brew prevented all that. Yet, I was calm, cool even, as the boys will say, minding my own business. The lemon trees were in flower. The sharp tang they lip-sticked the air with was sweet and invigorating. How could I have known that trouble stood at the door, armed with a battering ram, ready to break down my door and force its way in? I have never understood why Trouble would go through so much trouble for me.
When Fafi drove in, everybody was happy, of course. I remember that my wife frowned at me and hissed that I should show life, whatever that meant. But I could not be expected to be in tizz over my own cousin. After all, I returned his hug, did I not, no matter that doing so embarrassed the hair out of my armpits? My wife said that I’m old-fashioned, which was her way of telling me that I was forgiven. Women!
The first thing he did, soon after we had exchanged greetings, was to offer me his special beer. I should have refused, but my wife was watching. The family discussion we were supposed to hold was already in jeopardy. When Fafi starts drinking, he usually continues for two or so days. True, I never meant to say the things I ended up saying, but everything Fafi ever does is calculated to goad me into doing something stupid. I do not understand what pleasure he derives from that. Anyway, I accepted the glass, closed one eye and tossed the horrid stuff down my throat. While my innards churned and burned, everybody cheered.
‘ “Good for real men, son,” he would blare, while I wondered what a real man was. But I knew better than to ask. The sight of him grabbing his crotch and shaking it in reply to a similar question sometime before had left me feeling slightly queasy.’
‘Now you are drunk. Is it my father you are talking about?’
‘I know that he was your father, but he was my mother’s brother too, okay? Aunt Nambitha, that’s what I called your stepmother, kept chickens, plenty of chickens; chickens of all kinds imaginable. But, you know that. You never stopped reminding me, whenever you could, about who the heir was in the homestead - ’
‘Sometimes it helps a lot to ask why.’
‘I’m not asking, I’m telling you. Noisy little beasts those chickens were, but I liked them. Growing up in such a homestead, collecting eggs from numerous places in and around the home was an almost daily chore. That was when I learnt to hate eggs, for their fragility and for the manner in which we were taught to handle them; break an egg and your skull got a hot doze of s’khekhekhe, that head-ringing quick rap on the head using the – yes. And Uncle Augustine’s knuckles were the hardest. S’khekhekhe… aah, guaranteed to bring tears to the eye, whether you were crying or not. The rapping could be continued for as long the attacker’s knuckles didn’t hurt. And what I detested about the s’khekhekhe was the way it forced you to bend down and the attacker would follow you and go down with you until you were bending double. Someone watching would think that the two of you were doing a Congolese tango or that you were engaged in the opposite of the game of “Rise and be measured”. And one couldn’t cry over such a thing as s’khekhekhe, because if you did you earned yourself a more serious drubbing, as if head rapping isn’t painful enough. It was as if one had to be grateful that one had only had their head rapped. But that was not all. It seemed as though the eggs themselves connived to slip through the fingers and crash onto the ground, especially when some adult happened to be about and watching. The eggs did that, I’m sure, just to spite you. I’m not paranoid, I’m thirsty. Fill up the calabash, please.’
When he returned, Fafi remarked drily, ‘It’s strange. Why do I get the feeling that you were ungrateful, my cousin? I mean… eggs! How many people in Harare have eggs for breakfast?’
‘Okay, okay, I know what you are thinking, but you are wrong. We had eggs for breakfast, eggs for lunch – as desert, and please don’t look at me like that. The very thought of those days still makes me want to bite something – and we had eggs just before we slept. We had French toast, we had greens-in-eggs, eggs in beef soup, eggs and fish – mind the bones, children. The only people who could have been safe in that house were little children, who were forbidden to eat eggs because they risked discolouring their teeth. There was an experiment in which Aunt Nambitha crushed boiled eggs, like one does mashed potatoes, and added milk and called the fragrant mess goulash or something. When one dunked the stuff in soup it fell apart. We were pleased when the experiment went the way of the doomed. Then you had an egg to take to school, where everybody had an egg and almost everybody looked, if not behaved, like eggs.’
‘How do eggs behave?’
‘How do eggs behave? They roll about, fall and crack open, all the time stinking to high heaven.’
‘You got what you deserved, I think.’
‘Fafi, get this straight. Yes, Nambitha and I were friends, if one can put it that way. Yes, I became a letter courier on behalf of your father. Sometimes I corrected spellings, here and there, y’know. But, your father courted Nambitha all on his own. All in all, what I did was help two people who loved each other to come together. Of that I am guilty. However, it was your mother, in fact, who gave your father permission, okay?’ Fafi stared into my eyes and I held the stare. He knew that I was telling the truth.
‘Stop lying. She was very sick. How could he trust her to make such a decision?’
‘Look, let’s put that matter aside and let me finish, right?’ Fafi nodded, reluctantly. ‘Eggs. It got to a point where, during the times of drought when eggs were scarce, the other fellow sufferers and I did not miss them at all. I hate eggs.
‘Things would have gone on unremarkably but for a series of events, which, I admit, niggled me to a point of insanity. Let me drink.
‘Is it my mouth or does this beer taste funny? Try it. It’s my mouth? Hmm. Let me wash my mouth with another sip then.’
‘Anger is an amazing emotion. I think we keep getting angry because there is a fine side to it.’
‘Excuse me, I think you are con - ’
‘Hold it right there, mister Lawyer-man, I’m not contradicting myself at all. I’m simply explaining something I have noticed, without in any way implying that it is a good thing, but is something to be controlled. Control, see? Admittedly, there is a definite high to be obtained from anger. You know what I mean. Recall the day I released that dove from your trap and you would have killed me, given the chance. But that is not the point. The point is, after raging and cursing, there is that feeling of well being that comes with the thought that you are done. Even during the tempest you brew, the very idea that you are doing exactly what you want to do and saying what you are itching to say, fully convinced that it will lead to a desirable result, can be quite exhilerating, so to speak. But there is anger and anger. There is an anger that arises from continuous frustration, and now that I think about it, it was the kind of anger that drove your father, Uncle Augustine, to commit outrages.’
‘Kindly explain yourself.’
‘In case you issue a habeas corpus, eh?’
‘That’s not funny, Adonijah.’
‘Case in point; the day he tied up Peter Sturveysant to the cattle kraal logs and hit him on the mouth with a plank until he bled. I mean, I could hear bull moaning, man. And Uncle Augustine was not a cruel man. He loved that bull, for goodness’ sake! He knew that some bulls, no matter what is done, will jump over people’s fences in order to feast on the garden produce inside. He knew that. He knew that cows do such things because they are cows. But his reaction was incredible. No, I’m not yet done. There was your case, too. Pass the beer.’
‘I don’t remember.’
‘You don’t want to remember. Yes, your case. Why this selective recollection, Cuz? The days when eggs started disappearing, he caught you red-handed. You were with Nka, in case you have forgotten. I see you remember. Lucille had been there too, but he had the sense not to punish the boss’ daughter. He let Nka go, probably because she was a witch’s granddaughter or something. I remember it was rumoured that Nka’s grandmother never slept. And such things are passed on from mother to daughter, like hip-size or something.
‘You were caught with an egg in your hand. Uncle Augustine said nothing, then. He went home and instructed your stepmother to boil him a couple of eggs. As usual, she refused. She always found ways of putting him off. Perhaps that was the source of his frustration; having a wife who never really listens to you nor heeds your requests unless she wants something from you. How do I know that? Poor Cuz, like you said, I was like a son to those people. But, more than a son because your father confided in me, whenever he could. An uncle is a friend, y’know.
‘So, I boiled the eggs. Maybe your stepmother did not want to be party to such a punishment because she feared what the neighbours would say. There was a lot of nasty talk about stepmothers, even then. You know what happened. You know how hot a boiled egg is. You know what it means when your father smiles at you, takes your hand in his, slips a hot egg into your palm, folds your fingers over the egg and holds tight. I think that he counted up to twenty or thereabouts before he let go. I will not embarrass you any further. Sometimes I wonder whether you anger isn’t misplaced.’
‘Don’t try to drive a wedge between us! Besides, I took it like a man.’
‘What! Is this man crazy? You bellowed like a bull and broke liquid wind like you had diarrhoea or worse! What! You even tried to bite him! Oh yes, what use is a man who can’t take a beating, hey? Huh? But be grateful that your stepmother was around.’ Had it been somebody else other than Fafi, I’m sure they would have recalled that incident with laughter.
‘Oh, actually I know what the problem was, between your father and your stepmother. He told me. But I cannot tell you that, cousin, because you won’t believe me.’
‘Now you are going to tell me that he confided in you.’
‘When he confided in me, it was not because he expected me to help. He simply wanted to let out steam. No, don’t bother quizzing me. Really, my cuz, would your read your father’s love letter? Perhaps you lawyers can because you fellows can’t be trusted to heed feelings of shame.
‘Let me see the palm of your right hand. Oh come on, it’s been a long time, man. No? Hmm, never mind.
‘Thing is, my cousin, there comes a time when one must draw a line. What I mean is, if Uncle Augustine could take out his anger on everybody else other than on the cause of it, then he was being irresponsible, wasn’t he?’
‘Look, Adonijah - ’
‘I told you, he was my mother’s brother, okay? Don’t ask for information that won’t edify you in any way, my cousin. Know that your father was an unhappy man. Try not to be like him, for we are fated to turn out like our fathers. Be happy, if you dare.
‘Well, one day I came home from school and Lord Soames bounded up to me. I told him to stop and he did, his stump of a tail a whirr behind him. He cocked his big black head to the left and looked at me quizzically, as if waiting. Dogs have an amazing aptitude for communication. Don’t start analysing my words, lawyer, because it trivialises everything that is good about the simple things of life - ’
‘I wasn’t about to say anything!’
‘I know you, boy. Besides, life is not about standing in the dock forever, y’know.’
‘How nice to see how well known I am,’ remarked Fafi drily.
‘Anyway, I noticed that Lord Soames’ snout was a curious yellow colour. The new trick of collecting an egg at a time and bringing it home had backfired. I wiped the mess off.
‘It was not long before Aunt Nambitha started complaining about her eggs. It did not take Uncle Augustine long to discover who the culprit was. One Sunday, I came back from church and I found Uncle Augustine by the old granary. I could see that Lord Soames was between Uncle Augustine’s legs but I could not understand why he put the dog’s snout in the area of his crotch. I stood behind him, saying nothing. Soon, Lord Soames’ feet were scrabbling wildly and immediately afterwards, he was whining, because of pain. I mean, really, a man must watch where he places his foot because God can hear it scream, when you step on a worm.
‘Hand over the calabash.
‘Uncle Augustine’s muscles bulged and the veins of his neck stood out as he fought to keep Lord Soames’ mouth clamped shut over the hot egg. Lord Soames actually wept. Uncle Augustine chuckled. Let me drink.
‘When he let the dog go, my eyes could not see clearly. I thirst.’ By then, I had the whole of Fafi’s attention.
‘Anyway, I didn’t plan to do anything about it until one afternoon, when I saw Uncle Augustine lying in the shade of a mango tree, drinking Take-me-quick. He was dressed in his overalls. That gave me the idea.
‘Remember that black and begrimed ribbed tin – a former container of Heinz baked beans – that you and Nka used for that special, scientific enterprise? Don’t look so confused, Cuz. That is the tin I used, the one that you and Nka had used to cook her faeces. The scientists in you wanted to find out what exactly happened when one’s faeces were boiled, remember? Talk about mad scientists! Well, I used the tin to boil three eggs. I knew that that day, Uncle Augustine would relax under the same mango tree, drinking his lethal beer whilst in his overalls and nothing else beneath.’
‘You are insane!’
‘Yes, I am mad. Not many people realise that, fortunately. But I was angry. That is what anger does to you. Especially when you see your dog suffering because it cannot eat because someone you love and trust put a hot egg in its mouth for goodness’ sake! So, I went up to him, greeted him politely, waiting for him to sit up, like he usually did. And he did. And when he sat up, the partially buttoned overall opened up and I threw in the eggs onto his bare chest. When he leapt up in surprise, the eggs slid down the overall. Did I tell you that he had his gumboots on?’
Silence settled over the night like a light and warm blanket. From the direction of the kitchen came the sound of a spoon scrapping the bottom of a pot.
‘No, I never hated him. I just wanted him to feel what Lord Soames felt when he held the dog’s mouth shut over a burning egg.
Oh God, I miss Fafi. Perhaps I should write and tell him that harvesting has just begun. Ask him to bring his pellet gun so we can shoot a few birds. He liked that. Perhaps it will be better to phone him. Yes, I will phone him. He must be missing me too.