Calcutta, India — Monday, May 2nd

A fish out of water

When I was four years old, somebody gave me a butterfly net for Christmas. We were living in Park Rynie back then, a quaint little town about 35 miles (60 kilometers) south of Durban, on the verdant Natal coast. South Africa is such a beautiful country.

We lived almost on the beach: you opened the front gate, skipped down eight steps, ran across the dirt road, climbed over the sagging barbed wire fence, hopped across the railway track — and ran down the grassy embankment onto the beach!

My mother collected seashells so we used to go for a walk along the beach almost every morning or afternoon. Ah, back then, in the late fifties, thousands upon thousands of seashells used to wash up on to the shore every day. By the early seventies you almost never saw any shells. Where did they all go?

At low tide, my mom and I used to walk along the high tide mark, clearly demarcated by the myriad white seashells, and pick through the more interesting and unusual specimens. Every so often we would find one of those big, colorful, prized cowrie shells.

One late afternoon, shortly after Christmas, I was gamboling amongst the rocks and little pools, when my mother called me over to show me something. There, in a little rock pool no bigger than a goldfish bowl, was... a little silver fish! Maybe it had been trapped when the tide went out, or maybe it had been tossed into the pool by a fisherman and forgotten. I stared at it, fascinated; it swam around and around and around; how pretty it looked!

"Catch it with your net," encouraged mom. I dipped my net into the water; the net was almost the size of the pool; the fish swam into the net; I scooped it up and lifted it out.

"Hooray!" said mom. "You have caught your first fish. Let's go show it to your father."

I was quite proud of myself that afternoon, marching home to show dad the fish flopping in the net over my shoulder. "Look at what your son caught," mom said to dad when we got home.

"Congratulations, son," said dad, ruffling my hair.

Then a dreadful thing happened: mom put the little fish on the sink draining board, took a sharp knife out of the drawer, cut the fish open, ripped out its guts and gills, removed its scales, and plopped it in the frying pan!

That evening, at the dinner table, I was the center of attention — the envy of my siblings. I had an extra plate, set especially for me. Mom put the fried fish on it, and stood over me, smiling.

I stared at the poor little fish on my plate; it was fried so crisply that the head and tail were curled upwards; its beautiful silver skin was now a dirty gray; patches of the skin were peeled away to expose the white, furrowed flesh; the eyes had shrunk to opaque shriveled up balls; and the tiny mouth gaped in a final, silent scream...

Who gave me that silly net anyway? I was too young to know anything about butterfly collecting. Catching that little fish was probably the only utility that a net like that had for a little boy like me. Now, because of me, this poor little fish was dead.

All eyes at the table — mom, dad, and my siblings — stared at me. I stared at the fish. I felt a hard, dry lump in my throat. I could not swallow my spit, what to speak of the fish. I began to cry.

"That's okay, dear," mom said affectionately, patting me on the arm. "You don't have to eat it if you don't want to."

"I'll have it if he doesn't want it," said dad — and he proceeded to eat the little fish with gusto, smacking his lips, licking his fingers, and crunching the little brittle bones noisily between his teeth...

Calcutta, India — Wednesday, May 4th

Foul play on the farm

I was born in my maternal grandmother's home in Fascadale, in a large stone farmhouse with a thatched roof, in the district of Port Shepstone, Natal, South Africa. The house was set on a hill, among tall eucalyptus trees, and had a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. I spent many happy days in that house.

When I was about four years old, our family moved about 60 miles (100 kilometers) up the coast to the seaside town of Park Rynie. We used to return to Fascadale once or twice a year (usually at Christmas and Easter) to visit my grandparents.

On one such visit, I was playing outside in the back yard one afternoon when my grandmother came through the kitchen doorway with some dried corn kernels in a bowl. She walked over to the chicken run, opened the door, and started to throw handfuls of the corn inside while calling, "Cheep! Cheep! Cheep!" to the chickens.

This was more than any five-year-old boy could resist. I stopped whatever it was that I was doing and ran over to eagerly ask, "Can I help you to feed the chickens, grandma?" She gave me a handful of kernels and I happily threw them, one-by-one, through the chicken wire and into the enclosure. The clucking, fussing chickens gobbled them up as soon as they hit the ground. This was so much fun!

When most of the chickens were inside, grandma closed the door, pointed to one of the red roosters, and asked Patalala, the wizened Zulu farm hand, to catch it. Patalala, whose Zulu name means something like, "carried while asleep" (but whom we children called Butter-lala!) was surprisingly spry for his old age, as I was about to see.

When he walked into the chicken run, pandemonium broke out as he chased the rooster, kicking up clouds of dust as he dashed this way and that through the frightened chickens who squawked, ran, jumped, and flew, scattering feathers all over the place as they frantically tried to avoid being trampled or captured. He emerged less than a minute later, dusty and grinning, with the hapless rooster under his arm.

Patalala, followed by my grandmother, carried the squawking rooster over to the woodpile. He held the rooster over an upturned stump of wood, and grandma placed the enamel bowl under its head.

Suddenly, to my increasing trepidation, my dear, kind-hearted old grandmother, who was always so caring and gentle, who was always so benevolent and magnanimous — who would not harm a fly! — began to transmogrify right before my incredulous eyes.

That same soft hand that held out treats, now held a vicious-looking carving knife. That same soft hand that affectionately patted my head, now grabbed the rooster roughly by the head. That same soft hand that wiped my tears when I was hurt, now hurt the poor rooster, severing its head from its neck with one cruel stroke of the knife!

I was transfixed with horror.

I watched fascinated as the blood spurted out of the obscene-looking neck in a thin jet, arcing over the bowl and into the sand, causing grandma to jump back and hastily reposition the enamel container. The headless body threshed and thrashed convulsively in Patalala's hands. It was as if the rooster was still alive, trying to run, trying to flap its wings, trying to get away.

"Bamba!" shouted my grandmother irritably, in Zulu, as the old man struggled to do just that: "Hold it!"

The heart is an involuntary muscle; it is programmed to function automatically. The little chicken heart persevered bravely, senselessly; it did not know that its work was over, that it did not need to maintain the body any longer; it kept on beating uselessly, foolishly pumping blood, not to the brain, but into the air, until the last few drops of its life dribbled slowly, pathetically, into the bowl...

That evening, the extended family all seated themselves around the large wooden table in the kitchen. The first course for dinner was soup. Mom scooped a steaming ladleful into my bowl. I peered timidly over the top of my bowl, and tentatively stirred the opaque, viscous liquid with my spoon. I saw what looked like a heart and a neck — it was the same chicken that grandma had killed this afternoon!

Everybody began to eat the soup. I felt sick. My teeth were clamped so tightly together that my jaw ached. I was aghast. How could they all eat the poor chicken?

"Aren't you going to eat?" my grandmother asked.

I bowed my head and stared sullenly at my lap.

"Your soup's getting cold," she prompted.

A big tear scalded its way down my cheek and fell onto my tightly folded hands. Mom got up. She made a peanut butter sandwich, handed it to me, and said that I could be excused from the table. As I left the kitchen, I heard her say: "He has a soft heart."

Calcutta, India — Friday, May 6th

You can't go back

I was eleven years old in 1964, when we all piled into the family car and drove up to Saint Lucia (an estuary north of Richards Bay, just south of the Swaziland border, on the Natal coast of South Africa) to spend the Christmas vacation on my paternal uncle's farm.

We kids (my two brothers, my sister, and I) loved visiting the farm because it had so many fruit trees, and we were allowed to pick and eat any of the fruit that we wanted to: mangos, guavas, pomegranates, pineapples, bananas, pawpaws, granadillas, and what have you.

There were so many mango trees, for instance, that if I climbed up one of the trees and declared: "All the mangos on this tree belong to me!" none of my siblings disputed my claim, fought me over it, or ran to tell mom. They simply walked over to the next tree and claimed the exclusive right to all the fruit on that tree!

I cannot recall what gifts any of us got for Christmas that year, but I do remember the gift that my uncle got: a pellet (BB) gun. All the boys were excited. Oh, we had seen pellet guns before, but this one was different: this one had a telescopic sight!

A few days after Christmas, my uncle offered to show my brothers and me how to use it. We jumped up and down with excitement, clamoring, "Me first! Me first!"

At last it was my turn. Wow! A real telescopic sight! The rifle was all shiny and new and not at all like the old, scratched-up pellet gun that we kids were allowed to play with. There were no pellets for that gun, but we used to have so much fun cocking the barrel and shooting blanks, pretending that we were big game hunters, or galloping wildly around the yard playing cowboys and indians.

This gun was not like that. This was just like a real spy's rifle! And it felt so heavy! I looked through the sight. How close everything looked!

Now let me see... What could I shoot? I looked around...

"Shoot that bird!" my uncle yelled.

"What bird?"

"Over there! On the fence."

I looked over at the fence.

"Where? I don't see it."

"There — next to the pole."

I looked again. I couldn't see anything. I raised the rifle and looked through the telescopic sight. Ohmigosh! There it was, sitting on the wire at the top of the fence. It looked so close... like I could stretch out my hand and grab it.

I lined the bird up in the cross hairs of the telescopic sight. Whoa! This was so cool — I was just like James Bond 007! Look at how close the bird was! It seemed to be sitting right on the end of the gun.

I put my finger on the trigger. The crosshairs were centered on the bird's chest. I squeezed gently... ever so gently...

To my surprise and consternation, there was a tiny puff! of feathers, and poof! the bird disappeared. What—? Bang! The sound of the pellet leaving the barrel of the rifle exploded in my ear.

I looked up. I could not see the bird. Where did it go? I started to walk, then run, over to the fence. There, in the long grass, lying flat on its back, was the little bird. Its smooth featherless eyelids were closed. Its hard yellow tongue showed slightly through its parted beak. Its wings were tucked in by its sides. Its thin legs stuck straight up in the air. And in the middle of its chest, was a small, round, bloody hole.

"You got it!" cried my uncle, running up and patting me on the back. My brothers crowded around, alternately gazing enviously at me, and staring curiously at the bird.

I bent down slowly, and tenderly picked up the pathetic little creature. The soft, fluffy feathers on its chest were warm against my little fingers. My fingers! They were red. The enormity of what I had done began to seep into my consciousness. The bird was dead. I had killed it.

I could not believe it. What was I thinking?

I felt like I was being sucked into a vortex. My head swirled and my heart hammered in my ears. I put down the gun and squatted with the bird in my hand. The whole world receded in a hollow roar. My vision blurred. My mouth tasted so bitter that I wanted to throw up.

What had I done?

Gone was the glamour of the gun. Where is the glamour in killing? I would have done anything to bring that little bird back to life again, but alas — as I was in the throes of discovering — when you take a life you cannot give it back.

"Come on," said my uncle jovially, "I'll show you how to pluck it."

"No!" I screamed, jumping up and swinging round to face him. My little body was shaking with fury. He looked at me, puzzled. My eyes were stinging. I could hardly see. I turned and ran off, clutching the bird to my chest with both hands.

Later, alone, I buried the little bird in a shallow grave next to the fence. I never touched another gun again in my life.

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Layout by iMonk — May 6th, 2005.