Of Porridge, Untethered Things & Rabbits Somto Ihezue
The boy is taken with the forest, the musk of wet bark – bold, consuming, and the sunlight, gold mist stealing through the canopy. When the forest breaks day with its many songs, its chirps, and croaks, it calls to him, like music longing to be heard. Over the roots and through the low-hanging branches, the boy pours out, unto the bank of a babbling spring. At the water’s edge, peppers, scent leaves, and pumpkins grow in the most intentional patterns, their sweetness dampening the air. The boy nips the pumpkin leaves, gnawing on one and stashing the rest into his raffia bag.
“How do we know which leaves to eat?” The boy once asked his grandmama.
“Whatever the antelopes eat, so can we.”
“Even the grass?”
“Well, not everything, ” she had laughed.
In the boy’s village, the New Yam Festivals were held as the rains poured their last. Under a full moon, the farmers would haul their first yams – some bulkier than grown men – into the village square. To ancestors past, they’d offer the yams in gratitude. Encircling a large fire, the elders would roast their tubers, and eat them with palm oil, and ùtàzì leaves. Like drums of war, pestles would be heard for miles as boiled yams got pounded in mortars. With bitter-leaf soup, the meshed yam would be swallowed in small folds.
But this time, the year rolled out and the rains did not come. With the soil cracking under the heat, the villagers harvested what little they could before the scorching sun consumed everything. The boy’s cousin, Nene, the one at the university up in the city, had said something about a layer in the sky, how it was waning, destroyed by smoke and fumes, how it caused the drought.
“Bear Nene no mind,” the boy’s grandmama had told him. “Our ancestors have held back the rain for many have strayed from them.”
Like every other family, the boy and his grandmama had to celebrate the New Yam Festival in their home. There was no gathering, no pounding, no large fires.
“We should make porridge yam,” the grandmama suggested.
“Yes, it’d go perfectly with some roast rabbit,” she replied. “Run along now, go get me some vegetables. And check the traps!” She added as he ran off.
Porridge yam and roast rabbit, this is why the boy is nipping pumpkin leaves by the spring. The spring had endured despite the drought, its water, a shimmer in the dark. With all its shadows, the forest does not frighten the boy. His parents, hunters, had lived at its skirts. They taught him to tie a knot, to set traps, and to shoot geese from the sky. One day, they went into the forest and never came back.
Done plucking the vegetables, the boy wanders off, farther into the woods. He comes upon a heap of dry grass and scatters it to reveal a cage trap. Inside, a rabbit, the white of clouds, shivered. He draws his blade, and his father’s voice steals into his mind, Do not hesitate.
* * *
The boy skips home. He stops to chase a rooster before hurrying back on. Home, he finds his grandmama crushing palm kernels. He kneels and kisses her cheek. She smells of old wood and charcoal. She looks into his raffia bag, and displeasure sets on her face.
“Yes.” The boy bites his fingers. “I think they’ve all left the village.”
“We’ll have to make do.” She hands him a tiny yam tuber. The yams are all tiny, the drought had made sure of it. The boy dices it into the pot of water sitting on the fireplace. While his grandmama chops the pumpkin leaves, he goes to grind the peppers and mushrooms. As the yams soften, she calls him to pour in the palm oil.
“Careful now,” she says, as he tilts the oil into the pot. She always let him run such little errands around the kitchen, except with the soup. “You’ll ruin it, ” she always says whenever he asked to help.
“Do I have to be a hunter?” The boy asks, pouring the oil.
“Yes, just like your father and mother.” His grandmama stirs as he pours, “You come from an old line of hunters.”
“I don’t know if I want to.”
Ladle in her hand, his grandmama stops. “So what will you be?” She swipes the ladle with a finger and tastes the porridge.
“I could go to the university.” The boy sets down the oil keg and returns to the grinding stone. “Cousin Nene said I could learn to be a – a – ” He fumbles for the word, squinting, as he scratches his neck. “A chef!” He blurts out. “She said I could cook in the city, and get something called a five star and – ”
“I told you to stop listening to Nene,” his grandmama cuts in. “A boy can’t be a – ” She looks down at him and pauses. His hands back and forth on the grinding stone move in a knowing manner. The grinding slab tilts to the side, but the boy doesn’t stop, he knows it will steady.
“A boy can’t be what grandmama?”
She does not answer. She slides the chopped vegetables into the pot. The boy comes up behind her, and before she can stop him, he takes the ladle and stirs. His grandmama watches him, his hands, how they move, like on a journey.
“Perhaps you could make the soup for dinner.”
The boy stops to stare at her. “Are you sure?” He asks with narrowed eyes. “I wouldn’t want to ruin it.”
Like the flames from the fireplace, the boy beams.
“That’s enough.” The grandmother takes the ladle from him. “Off you go, go see if that trap of yours has caught a rabbit or something.”
She watches the boy speed out the house, certain he won’t return, not with a rabbit.
Previously published in Bacopa Review, October 2021. Reprinted here by permission of the author.
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