Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Book 2: The Food and Fornication Fables Chapter 1: Making Bread

Making Bread

Always remember to take charge of the encounter from the very beginning.
If you cringe and snivel and act the slave, you will be the slave.
Be the Master, and your chances of surviving unharmed will be that much higher.

                                                                                                   Lady Wu, the Empress of China

The day I was born luck smiled on me. A sardonic smile, but a smile none the less.
I was lucky, I still am.

Considering my history and the story I will now be telling you, child, you will think my idea of being “lucky” peculiar.

I was born on a ship: a dank and rusty tramp-steamer plying the East Coast of Africa, hitting every forgotten rat-ridden port.
The day I was born, the River Moreno, under the flag of Panama, was docked in Mogadishu. The charming gentlemen of the crew were entertaining.

I rather imagine my Mother waddled in, slick fleshed and glossy, to general delight; the crew being rather partial to generous female flesh, probably as a welcome change from each other’s sinewy and hairy buttocks. I’m quite sure she was hotly contested. So much so, that she was the resident guest for several days, until suddenly and inexplicably, she vanished, taking with her several treasured belongings of her most ardent admirers. We cannot, however, accuse her of theft. What she took, she took in trade.

She bartered in flesh, so it surely must have seemed logical to her. She bartered me. My squirming new-born flesh was deposited in the onion basket. I see now how my fate was determined: my very first seller was my Mother.
I must believe some tender feelings of motherly concern intervened, for she left me in what was the most welcoming place in the River Moreno: the galley, redolent with delicious smells, a paradise of cleanliness and plenty. When her time came, she must have made her way down to that galley, squatted down and grunted me out in a business-like fashion. She tied off my umbilical cord and carefully cleaned up all traces of her labour, in fact all traces of her part in my life’s history end here.

So it was that Anatoly Servinski, coming into the galley to make the morning’s bread, found me: a scrap of dark squealing humanity, glistening and naked, waving fiercely clenched fists at the world, and that, dear child, was all the luck I’ve ever needed, all of my life.

I believe my pugnacious character, that was to be such an asset in the future, was evident from day one.
I screamed with demented rage, punched and kicked at the soft cotton swaddled around me, tears jetted from my eyes, my tiny body thrumming with fury.

My Father mixed powdered milk from the stores with boiled water, and soaking a cloth in the tepid liquid, carefully dribbled some into my yowling mouth. Apparently the silence was immediate, although I continued to valiantly wrestle with the sheet wrapped around me, and struggled to focus my new-born eyes on his face.
With fierce strength, so he told me, I managed to grasp the index finger of the hand holding the milk-soaked cloth.

That was the moment, according to my Father, that his fate was sealed. He transmuted half a century of pent-up loneliness and homesickness into love. For me: a squealing bundle of bad temper and misshapen flesh.

That love was my talisman.

As soon as I was replete, I spat out the make-shift teat and grumbled viciously. I then proceeded to “bless” my Father with an acrid fountain of piss, and a wash of black shit.

All this he took calmly. He washed me clean and wrapped a kitchen cloth around my offending lower end to prevent further soiling of his galley. He emptied out the onion basket, laid a soft scrap of felt blanket in it and tucked me in. He then proceeded with his customary duties.

The warm smells of yeast and baking bread bring back my childhood most intensely, to this very day, which is why I’m starting you off on baking bread: now then, the very first step is learning how to mix the yeast.

You crumbled it into a bowl with your fingers, add a teaspoon of sugar and mix in a small amount of water. Yeast is alive, you know, so it needs warmth and sustenance, like all life. Tepid water, (not hot, or you’ll kill it), sugar to feed it, and a loving hand to mix it. This is what’s going make the bread good, and bread, as is well known, is the universal sustenance of all men.

I ate unleavened bread for years and years, and cannot deny its worth for a shrunken belly, but the soft yielding of yeasty bread is incomparably delicious to me. Nothing is as satisfying to hunger, or as powerful a stimulant of the human appetite as the scent of fresh-baked bread. Just plain bread, so hot it burns your fingers, so fresh it exhales a puff of aromatic steam when torn open.

I loved baking day: the smell of the yeast, the snowy clouds of sifted flour, the crisp contrast of the nutty crust with the soft, moist interior.

I believe my dwarfism only became apparent around my second or third birthday. I was quick to speak, but slow to walk. My days were spent sprawled on the galley floor on my blanket listening to my Father described his every act, his hands moving with hypnotic balletic grace at his tasks. His voice interwove stories from his childhood into descriptions of the correct way to prepare an aubergine for stuffing; the warp and the weft of his conversations were his beloved Russia, and his Art.

At night, my lullabies were his sonorous voice passionately declaiming recipes from his treasured collection of ancient books, the ticking of his pocket watch. I imbibed his history and his skill in lieu of Mother’s milk.

But I diverge!
Here, my dear! Sift the flour, gently now! There is no rush.
It’s rather lovely to watch it fall, isn’t it? So white, so clean, so perfect.

Ah yes!
It was that when I finally started to walk, tottering after my Father around that ship, that I first came to the attention of the shifting wave of stevedores, vendors, prostitutes and merchants. You must understand that this was the very backwater of the world: the forgotten and neglected edge of crumbling empires. These ports had survived for millennia trading in slaves and exotica, so while the tide of history flowed east, they were prosperous, but now the world looked to the West. These fly-infested sores on the flank of the great beast Africa teamed with the refuse of humanity, the denizens themselves the result of a thousand unfortunate crossings.

The sight of me, with my huge nodding head and little bowed legs aroused feelings of dread in Arabs, Europeans and Negros alike.
There is a universal fascinated repugnance for dwarfism.
I was tokoloshe, eloko, djinn, goblin, evil.
I was recognized instantly for what I was.
My Father’s loving eyes had refused to see the fatal signs.

I was a freak.

Manuela Cardiga

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