If you fit plant an’ grind corn, Ma’Tete said constantly, tha’s the main thing.
Every time she heard that mantra, Tete would smile inwardly, for she’d learnt to plant and grind maize only because she was raised in the hillside village, on the very ground floor of life. Her plans were city plans. She’d go much higher, do much better and her last day in the village would be her last truck with maize.
Ma’Tete wept on the day her daughter left, but Tete had too much anticipation for her future to weep over her past.
She returned at night. The fifteen years that wasted Tete didn’t change the village. She found her way home easily. Ma’Tete was sitting against the wall, nursing a small fire against the breeze rustling through the dry cornstalks. She looked lonely and tired. The smile that grew as she recognised her ravaged daughter wasn’t malicious, but the missing years were a painful cacti hedge between them. They sat silently, listening to crickets, as the wind, and the fire, died.
Tete listened to the cricket song. There were many heavy things – but just one critical thing to say. Problem was how to avoid the heavy things and say the critical one. (She was the creditor in the house of her debtor’s widow, who’d never get around to the critical matter of the debt if she started with the commiserations.) Yet, the heavies weighed on her. Where could she start? The flunking of medical school? The hotel years? The jail term? She couldn’t start with the miscarriages! That would lead, too soon, to the failed marriage, to the misguided emigration, and the pathetic years alternating between nursing homes and the nursing of dirty old men. The silence became a tense balloon inflated by each screech of cricket-wing. When the insects paused, it burst and she whispered the critical thing: I sorry, I bin wan’ write letter…
She began to weep silently.
Ma’Tete shook her arthritic legs, like one receiving commiseration on account of a bereavement which was too old to cause grief any longer. She’d awaited her daughter’s letters only a few months, then they joined the many other nice, unattainable things that didn’t cost her any sleep. No worry yoursef. She said. No worry yoursef at all.
If you wan’ chop, Ma’Tete said presently, corn dey for kitchen.
Tete stripped in the darkness of the bedroom and stood trembling. Corn dey for kitchen! She goose-pimpled. It boiled down to the corn then, a complex calculus that took her fifteen years to solve: So many pence-per-hour minus tax, divided by life expectancy, plus indignity, times frustration – was equal to two or three meals a day! Yet, the equation had gradually broken down. In ways she couldn’t understand, the grander things of the city came unstuck, fell apart. She became the famished, prowling a concrete jungle with not a cornstalk in sight. – Until life’s ground floor didn’t seem so bad after all, for a prodigal daughter.
She tied a wrapper and padded barefoot across the moist sand to the kitchen. It was smaller than her memory of it, reeking, not unpleasantly, of smoked fish. She bore the grindstone and the corn outside, sitting closer to Ma’Tete than before. The cacti hedge was still there, but it had shrunken somewhat. She put a handful of corn on the stone, shattering each with an economic twist of the wrist before grinding them into powder. The older woman watched, without appearing to. It took hours just to grind dinner, but her mother supplied the songs, which Tete hadn’t forgotten. Besides, she wasn’t in the pence-per-hour equation anymore.
She was back between the cornfield and the grindstone.
Ma’Tete paused to test the fineness of the powder and a beam of pride wreathed her face. The cacti hedge seemed to fade away as she uttered her highest compliment: Once you fit plant and grind corn, tha’s the main thing.
The crickets beat them to the song.