My Fathers Before Me
Dick, the yard man, took the big Rhode Island cock from the run and, tucking it under his arm, went back to the kitchen steps where he had been sitting.
He held the cock fast between his legs and, squeezing its mouth open with his left hand, took a pinch of ashes from the small heap besides him, between right thumb and forefinger. This he rubbed on to the bird’s tongue, and began to peel the hard, horny growth from the tongue’s end.
His grandmother, who had spent most of her usefulness with the family, came shambling from the house behind him, eating cassava farina soaked in water and sugar from a glass with a spoon. She stood looking down at him for some time, her eyes, the colour of dry bracken, tender, before she took a spoonful of farina from the glass and, bending with the stiffness of years, put it from behind into his mouth.
Through the matter in his mouth Dick said, like a man continuing his thought in speech:
“And your age, Granny? You’ve spent a lifetime here. How many summers you’s seen?”
“More than you’ll ever see if you go to that England,” she said, letting herself down on the step above him. “Eighty-four years come
October God spare life. Whole fourteen above and beyond what the good Lord says.”
Dick said: “Hm,” and taking the cock to the run, returned with a hen the whiteness of a swan.
The old woman said: “Just think of it, Dick, just think of it: Come this time tomorrow you’ll be miles away, with oceans of water separating you from everybody who loves you, and going to a land where you ent got a bird in the cotton tree, where nobody’ll care a straw whether you sink or swim, and where black ent altogether liked.” She scraped the last fragments of farina from the glass, and once more put the spoon to his mouth.
“You ent mind leaving us Dick?” she said. “You ent mind leaving your poor old Granny and Ma? And Vere? What about Vere? You ent got no feelings in that belly of yo’n Dick?”
Dick said, sucking matter from his teeth with his tongue: “I’ll send for Vere as soon I can. Maybe Ma too.”
The old woman continued as though she had not heard: “No more Dick about the house to put your hands ‘pon. Maybe some lazy wring-neck governor in your place whose only interest’ll be his week’s pay.”
Dick said, applying ashes to the bird’s tongue: “Time enough too, and welcome.”
From an upstairs window, whose curtains she had been pulling against the evening sun, Bessie saw her mother sitting on the concrete step above Dick. Going down to the servant’s room she took a cushion from the sofa and going out to where they were sitting said:
“Up Ma. Think you’s young sitting on this cold step.”
The old woman raised her buttocks a few inches, and Bessie pushed the cushion under.
“I’s just been telling Dick, Bessie, how no good ent ever come to our family leaving our land and going into nobody else country.”
“True enough,” said Bessie. “Look at my Dick and Panama.”
The old woman said: “Ever teach you who the Boers was at school Dick?”
“I ent ever learned for sure who the Boers were,” said Dick, “save that they couldn’t stand up to bayonets.”
Bessie said: “That’s right. ‘At the bayonet charge the Boers surrender.’”
“British bayonets,” said Dick. ……