An excerpt from Frying Plantain

Excerpt: Pig Head

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“Sharp-witted and sharp-tongued, Frying Plantain is written in the indelible ink of memory. Zalika Reid-Benta is a masterful storyteller with a light touch, a photographic recall, and a pitch-perfect ear for the ephemera we’d like to think of as youthful, but just can’t seem to shake. This is an unforgettable debut.”

—Paul Beatty, Booker Prize–winning author of The Sellout

On my first visit to Jamaica I saw a pig’s ­severed head. My grandmother’s sister Auntie had asked me to grab two bottles of Ting from the icebox and when I walked into the kitchen and pulled up the icebox lid there it was, its blood splattered and frozen thick on the bottles beneath it, its brown tongue lolling out from between its clenched teeth, the tip making a small dip in the ice water.

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My cousins were in the next room, so I clamped my palm over my mouth to keep from screaming. They were all my age or younger, and during the five days I’d already been in Hanover they’d all spoken easily about the chickens they strangled for soup and they’d idly thrown stones at alligators for sport, side-eyeing me when I was too afraid to join in. I wanted to avoid a repeat of those looks, so I bit down on my finger to push the scream back down my throat.

Only two days before I’d squealed when Rodney, who was ten like me, had wrung a chicken’s neck without warning; the jerk of his hands and the quick snap of the bone had made me fall back against the coops behind me. He turned to me after I’d silenced myself and his mouth and nose were twisted up as if he was deciding whether he was irritated with me or contemptuous or just amused.

“Ah wah?” he asked. “Yuh nuh cook soup in Canada?”

“Sure we do,” I said, my voice a mumble. “The chicken is just dead first.”

He didn’t respond, and he didn’t say anything about it in front of our other cousins; but soon after, they all treated me with a new-found delicacy. When the girls played Dandy Shandy with their friends they stopped asking me to be in the middle, and when all of them climbed trees to pluck ripe mangoes they no longer hung, loose-limbed, from the branches and tried to convince me to clamber up and join them. For the first three days of my visit, they’d at least tease me, broad smiles stretching their cheeks, and yell down, “This tree frighten yuh like how duppy frighten yuh?” Then they’d let leaves fall from their hands onto my hair and laugh when I tried to pick them out of my plaits. I’d fuss and grumble, piqued at the taunting but grateful for the inclusion, for being thought tough enough to handle the same mockery they inflicted on each other. But after the chicken, they didn’t goad me anymore and they only approached me for games like tag, for games they thought Canadian girls could stomach.

“What’s taking you so long?” My mother came up behind me and instead of waiting for me to answer, leaned forward and peered into the icebox, swallowing hard as she did. “Great,” she whispered. “Are you going to be traumatized by this?”

I didn’t quite know what she meant — but I felt like the right answer was no, so I shook my head. My mother was like my cousins. I hadn’t seen her butcher any animals, but back home she stepped on spiders without flinching and she cussed out men who tried to reach for her in the street, and I couldn’t bear her scoffing at me for screaming at a pig’s head.

“Eloise!” Nana called. My grandmother came into the kitchen from the backyard and stood next to us, her hands on her hips. The deep arch in her back made her breasts and belly protrude, and the way she stood with her legs apart reminded me of a pigeon.

“I hear Auntie call out she want a drink from the fridge. That there is the freezer, yuh nuh want that. Yuh know wah Bredda put in there? Kara canna see that, she nuh raise up for it.”

“I closed the lid,” said my mother. “Anyway, it was a pig’s head. It’s not like she saw the pig get slaughtered. She’s fine.”

“Kara’s a soft one. She canna handle these things.”

I felt my mother take a deep breath in, and I suddenly became aware of all the exposed knives in the kitchen and wondered if there was any way I could hide them without being noticed. We were only here for ten days and my mother and Nana had already gotten into two fights — one in the airport on the day we landed, the other, two nights after — and Auntie had threatened to set the dogs on them if they didn’t calm down.

 

“Mi thought Canada was supposed fi be a civilized place, how yuh two fight like the dogs them? Cha.”

I wondered if all daughters fought with their mothers this way when they grew up, and I started to tear up just thinking about it. Nana looked at me.

“See? She ah cry about the head.”

“It’s not about the head,” said my mother. “She just cries over anything.”

“Like I say. She a soft chile.”

  • • •

The pig’s head haunted me for the rest of the trip. When we did things the tourists did, like try to climb up the Dunn’s River Falls, I’d imagine the head waiting for me at the top of the rocks, the blue-white water pouring out of its snout and ears; and at Auntie’s house, I was haunted by its disappearance and legacy. Nana kept me away from the kitchen and either icebox. Her normally pinched-up face was smooth with concern, which irritated me more than it comforted me.

The only person who wasn’t all that excited about the pig’s head was Anna Mae, a girl one grade above us who always had her blonde hair twisted into French braids.

But back home in Toronto, I told everyone about the head. At school during recess, I gathered all of my classmates around in the playground and watched as their pink faces flushed red with vicarious thrill.

“And you killed the pig?” They gasped. “You weren’t scared?”

“You weren’t grossed out?”

“Nope,” I said without hesitation. “It was cool.”

“Was there lots of blood?”

“Tons!” I giggled and leaned in so everyone around me could make the circle tighter. “I was the one who stuck it in the throat and the blood just came gushing out.”

“Eew!” they sang out, covering their faces, cowering from the image of spurting blood, dark and thick, and a slashed throat. They spread their hands out so they could see me through the spaces between their fingers.

“Did any of the blood get on you?”

“Yeah. That part was pretty bad.” The words came naturally, and with every sentence I could see the images of my story unfold before me like they were pieces of a memory I’d forgotten. I told many stories at school. Stories that made me the subject of interest; stories that took on lives of their own and allowed me to build different identities, personalities; stories that brought me audiences.The only person who wasn’t all that excited about the pig’s head was Anna Mae, a girl one grade above us who always had her blonde hair twisted into French braids. She’d just moved to the city from a farm in Kapuskasing — somewhere in Northern Ontario — and she’d already told us about the blind or sickly kittens they would drown in the river there. For the first couple of months she was known as the girl who killed cats, and whenever she showed up at a birthday party (the birthday boy or girl having been guilted into inviting her by his or her parents), if there was a cat in the house, all of the kids would take turns holding it tightly to their chests or someone would lock it away in the basement for safety, always keeping an eye on Anna Mae and what she doing, where she was going.

But away from school, in the neighbourhood where we lived, the kids were as skeptical of my story as Anna Mae was unenthused, staring blankly at me as she had. Most of my neighbourhood friends had either just moved here from the Islands or had visited them so often it was like they lived both here and there. And so none of them found anything intriguing about my story — not even the kids who came from the Island cities and not the farms. I wasn’t foolish enough to tell them I’d stuck the pig, though — I knew if I pushed it too far, they’d find me out, and their trust would be much harder to win back than that of the white kids at school.

“So what did you do, then?”

We were at Jordan’s apartment, in her bedroom, sucking on jumbo-sized freezies and deciding which CD to play in the Sony stereo: Rule 3:36 or The Marshall Mathers LP. I was on the bed and lying on my back, my head dangling off the foot of the mattress, almost touching the floor, my eyes on the pink paint-chipped walls and the Destiny’s Child and Aaliyah posters.

“I watched,” I said.

Rochelle, who was sitting at the study desk in the corner of the room, logged in to a chat room, turned away from the computer, and looked at me. “Did you close your eyes?”

“No. I saw the whole thing.”

“And you weren’t scared?” said Jordan, inching closer to where I was lying down.

“Nope.”

“Yeah, right.”

“It’s true! And when it was dead, I cut a piece off.”

Aishani laughed. “Did not.”

“Did too! Norris helped me so I wouldn’t mess up.”

“You didn’t tell us about a cousin named Norris.”

“Norris works for Auntie and Brother.”

Anita yawned, then put her hands behind her head. “I still don’t believe you weren’t scared,” she said. “You can’t even jump from the top of the stairs to the bottom like we do.”

“Well, I wasn’t scared of this.”

“I’m gonna ask your mom when she comes,” she said.

“Go ahead. She’ll tell you I didn’t scream.”

Anita’s mom picked her up before mine did, and I no longer had to fret so much about the possibility of exposure — I knew the other girls were less likely to press it. By the time my own mother came for me their insults didn’t have such a mean bite. They didn’t feel like they were meant for an outsider; there was a subtle warmth of good nature now, of the kind of inclusion I’d had and lost with my cousins.

My mother passed her tired eyes over me in the passenger’s seat. Even at ten my feet didn’t touch the ground. “Had a good time at Jordan’s?”

“It was fun,” I said. “I want to go over more, if that’s okay.”

“Maybe.”

The man headed out of the store, pushing open the door so that it thumped against the outer wall. “Always something with you fucking people.”

We had to stop for gas before going home; a wood-panelled boat of a machine, my mother’s station wagon always seemed in need of gas and plagued us with new worries instead of simply ridding us of our old ones. I remembered her face when she first saw the car, how her nose wrinkled in disgust, but the woman who was selling it knocked the price down to a number my mother couldn’t afford to say no to.

She stuck me in the line to pay while she went to the fridges for some milk, promising me a chocolate bar when we reached the cashier. The woman in front of me took her receipt from the cashier and headed out to her pump, and then a man cut in front of me.

“Excuse me,” said my mother. She walked from the back of the store to the counter, a slim box of 2 percent in her hand. “You just cut in front of my daughter.”

“Oh,” the man said.

“‘Oh’?” my mother repeated. “She was next in line. Go to the back.”

“Jesus Christ,” said the man. He was beefy and mean-looking: buzzed blond hair, a red skull-and-bones T-shirt stretched over his chest. I wanted to tell my mother to leave him alone. “I could’ve paid for the gas in the amount of time you stood here bitching at me,” he said. “What’s your fucking problem?”

“That you didn’t wait your turn. Get to the back of the goddamn line.”

“Mummy —”

I tugged on her jacket but she slapped my hand away and I recoiled from the sting.

The cashier started to raise his hands in a plea for my mother and the man to calm down, and nervousness shivered through the line; the people behind us started to fidget.

“I don’t like this,” I whispered. “I don’t like this, I don’t like this . . .”

The man headed out of the store, pushing open the door so that it thumped against the outer wall. “Always something with you fucking people.”

My mother slammed the milk down on the counter and yelled the pump number to the cashier. She turned to me. “Why were you going to tell me to stop?”

“I just didn’t want to —”

“What? Want to what, Kara?”

I started to chew on my lower lip and hoped that by some miracle the floor would open up and swallow me whole and cushion me from her voice. “I wanted to forget about it.”

“Of course. You want to forget everything! I don’t know how you got to be so soft. Everyone will walk all over you if you just ‘forget’ it. Come on, let’s go.”

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My mother banged out of the store without bothering to get a receipt, and I gave the cashier a small, apologetic smile before following her to the car.

After about a week, my teachers got wind of the pig’s head — probably because its severance became bloodier and more gruesome with every telling. My mother’s warning about being soft bounced around in my head, and soon I started adding new embellishments to the story.

“Have you ever heard a pig scream?” I’d ask, and after seeing a bunch of brown-haired heads wag from side to side, I’d shudder. “It’s really bad. I’m telling you.”

Every recess and during stolen moments in class, I’d report a new detail to my adoring audience: how the pig, being so strong and fat, gave us such a hard time when we grabbed it in its pen that Norris had to bash its head in with a hammer before I cut in with the knife; how I wasn’t wearing any gloves, so the blood poured warm and thick and sticky onto my hands. And then after school, when I finished my homework and I made my way down to the 7-Eleven with Rochelle and the rest of the girls (and sometimes even the boys from our block), I’d saunter down the sidewalk and sip my Slurpee and say, “Even when they skinned it, I didn’t look away. Not once.”

Quickly, I became one of the most popular kids in my grade. I was up there with Savannah Evans and Nicholas Lombardi. Savannah was the richest kid in school; Nick, with his long eyelashes and dirty-blond cherub curls, was the cutest; and I was suddenly the craziest. Older sisters brought their younger siblings to me to be frightened and amazed, and in the playground boys started inviting me to play Red Ass with them, whipping me with the tennis ball as hard as they whipped each other.

Popularity did not claim me in my neighbourhood like it did at school, but there, nobody felt the need to translate for me anymore, to always bring up the great misfortune of being Canadian-born. I got bored of the live pig, of describing how boldly I’d watched its slaughter, and I moved on to explaining how I’d helped Auntie prepare jerk pork out of the butchered body. After that, whoever I hung out with mentioned fruits like skinup without asking me if I knew what they were, not asking me if I even knew what the Jamaican name for them — guinep — was, and they yelled “Wah gwa’an?” when they saw me instead of “Oh, hey.”

For a week I blustered around school and swaggered down Marlee Avenue and silently waited for the attention I got to transform me into a girl who would actually have the moxie to slaughter a pig. But that courage never burned in my belly; that aggression never revealed itself in a disregard for rules or in a penchant for pranks like it did with my friends. My sense of boldness only lasted for as long as my description of the pig did.

“I’m speaking.” She snapped her fingers loudly, and I flinched. “These people already look at me like I’m trash, Kara.”

I didn’t know that the teachers had found out about my stories until a Monday afternoon when I saw my mother standing in the hallway just before final recess. We all queued up to leave and when Miss Kakos, the student teacher, opened the classroom door to let us out, I saw my mother leaning against the plastered wall, a chewed-tip pencil jutting through her messy ponytail of relaxed hair, her tattered knapsack by her feet.

The sight of her made my fingers quiver. She had no place in my stories; she didn’t belong with any of the identities I constructed during the time I spent at school.

Miss Kakos shepherded the kids to the yard, and Ms. Gold put her hand on my back and beckoned for my mother to come inside. I was in a split-grade class so my classroom was one of the largest in the school, divided into sections: Reading Section, Working Section, Science Section, Cleansing Section. I’d heard my mother whisper to her other mother-friends about schools that had walls and ceilings falling apart, about schools that packed children into portables because of lack of space — but my school wasn’t like that. Every room was big and colourful and chock full of brand-new equipment the school fundraised for.My classmates were picked up in Range Rovers and BMWs driven by their nannies and occasionally their parents. Sometimes the parents would stop my mother and offer her a job.

“I’m picking up my own child,” she’d say before walking away.

I’d be right next to her, tugging on her sleeve. “Why did Katie’s mom ask if you needed a job when you have one?”

“Stop talking, Kara,” she’d whisper back, her face tight.

Ms. Gold led us to the Corrective Section, which was really just her desk. She sat down behind it and gestured for my mother and me to sit in the two blue stack chairs on the other side.

“I’m just going to get right to the point, Mrs. — I’m sorry, Miss Davis,” said Ms. Gold, folding her hands together. “There has been a rumour around the school — started by Kara — that she killed a pig on your vacation to Jamaica. The children have been abuzz with it. It seems to be quite the playground story.”

“You called me down here because my daughter told a lie?”

“So the story isn’t true?”

“No,” said my mother. “But even if it were, a child witnessing or helping out with butchering isn’t unusual or uncommon in Jamaica. But no, my daughter didn’t participate in either activity.”

“Miss Davis, to be frank, whether or not the story is true is irrelevant. It’s the nature of the lie that’s concerning.”

My mother looked at me, but I lowered my head so as to not meet her stare. I went over the story in my mind: the blood, the knife, the hammer, the screams. It no longer came to me in images; now it just seemed like words that didn’t belong to me.

“From what Miss Kakos, Mr. Roberts — the gym teacher — and I have gathered, Kara has exhibited pleasure and enthusiasm toward the concept of slaughtering an animal.”

“Well, children enthusiastically step on worms, rip the legs off a daddy-long-legs, squish bees. Kids are intrigued by the concept of death.”

“I understand that this is a delicate topic, and I am not hurrying to any conclusions. However, perhaps it would be good for Kara to see the school’s child psychologist —”

“Let me stop you right there,” said my mother, raising her hand. She paused for a beat and then smiled the way I’d see her do sometimes when a cashier or a waiter or our landlord got on her nerves.

“Ms. Gold, did you also know that I’m quite familiar with educational protocol?” she said. “And I believe that for a situation like this, the protocol is that before prescribing the school’s psychologist, the teacher must give the parent the option to take their child to a family doctor who would then offer their own referral.”

Ms. Gold pressed her lips together, a flush of red colouring her neck. When my mother finished speaking, she cleared her throat. “I ultimately don’t believe that the situation is all that serious,” she said. “I just thought you should know.”

“Thank you for your concern, and rest assured it will be dealt with. If you don’t mind,” said my mother, standing up. I got up with her. “I would like to take Kara home now.”

In the car, my mother turned to me, her finger pointed in my face. “Do you realize what you’ve done?”

“Mom —”

“I’m speaking.” She snapped her fingers loudly, and I flinched. “These people already look at me like I’m trash, Kara.”

I opened my mouth to speak even though I had no idea what to say her, but she just shook her head and turned away from me, resting back against her seat. “I do not need you making things worse by lying. Why would you even say that you killed a pig?”

I stayed silent, hunched in my seat; my eyes wandered as if scouting out an exit strategy, though I knew I could never just open the door and walk away from her.

My mother banged her palm against the steering wheel. “I asked you a question.”

“I don’t know why I did it,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re a little liar. If you were sorry you’d just stop making up stories,” she said. “I don’t know what I did to make you this way. Did you tell anyone from the neighbourhood?”

I squeezed my index and middle fingers with my left hand. “Just that I saw it. But nobody cares there, and you said that in Jamaica —”

“That isn’t the point,” she said. “I’m dropping you off at Nana’s. She’s off work today. I need to go back to the library, and I just can’t deal with you right now.”

“We only live one street over from her. If anything happens I can call her and she can come over. Please don’t make me go over there.”

“You not wanting to go to Nana’s just makes me want to leave you there even more. Put on your seat belt.”

  • • •

Before my mother dropped me off at Nana’s front door, she instructed me to tell my grandmother what I’d said about the pig’s head.

“And I’ll know if you don’t,” she’d said.

Telling Nana what I’d told my friends and the kids at school was easy: it was what came after that made me run into the guestroom and collapse on the bed, my face buried in one of the floral pillows that had been placed perfectly against the headboard. The door was closed, but I could hear my grandmother calling all the right people in the neighbourhood to tell them about what I’d done.

“She a bright-eye likkle pickney,” she said to Rochelle’s great-aunt. “I tell her say, ‘Yuh make yuh sail too big fi yuh boat, yuh sail will capsize yuh!’ She always make up story them, from when she was small! No way her mother let her slice up a pig, my daughter nuh crazy!”

Of course my friends’ mothers told them all about it, and of course none of them was surprised. And when I ran into the group on my way to the 7-Eleven, they acted as much.

“Hey, Kara,” said Jordan, sucking on a rocket popsicle.

“We were gonna see if we could get into the school and run up to the roof,” said Rochelle. “Wanna come?”

“I’m okay. Thanks.”

“I told you she’d say no, Chelle,” said Anita, smirking as she walked past me, knocking her shoulder into mine. “She’s too scared.”

After my mother’s visit I’d been afraid Ms. Gold would tell the class I’d been lying, but two days later I was still being asked about Hanover. I ended up repeating details rather than adding new ones; forgetting to lean in close at certain points and yell at others; not bothering to whisper to inspire shivers or to widen my eyes to elicit gasps. At recess, I leaned against the trunk of the giant willow tree that sprouted from a patch of dirt dug into the pavement, watching some boys play Cops and Robbers while a group of girls played Mail Man, Mail Man, their legs stretched painfully wide in near-splits. After a few minutes, I saw Anna Mae walking up to me, her French braids tied together with a lavender ribbon that criss-crossed in and out. She leaned next to me.

“I never see you alone,” she said.

Her voice was softer than I’d expected. Too soft for a kitten-killer.

“Just feel like sitting out.”

“You’re standing.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said.

We stood together for a while in a silence that I found unusual but not uncomfortable. It even felt peaceful. It was a silence that gave me the opportunity to settle into myself, to hear myself breathe and think.

I looked at Anna Mae in her purple corduroy overalls and noticed for the first time that her skin was a sort of greyish-cream and that her eyes were green. She pushed her hands deep into her pockets and slowly raised her head so that the back of it rested against the trunk and some of the bark chipped off into her hair. I felt no desire to think of a crazy anecdote for her to listen to, no need to twist myself into a new identity. I just felt like talking to her.

“It must’ve sucked watching kittens die.”

“I was six the first time. I threw up,” she said.

I stood there and imagined what it would be like to watch a kitten, barely bigger than a grown-up’s hand, get dunked and held under water.

“I didn’t do it, you know,” I said. “Kill a pig? Made it all up.”

She smiled. “That’s okay.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

The bell rang, and I could hear the collective groan of kids mid-game — they’d have to wait till lunchtime to pick up where they’d left off, and there’d no doubt be shouts for do-overs and clean slates. Anna Mae and I walked quietly together to the nearest school doors, side-stepping a tennis ball rolling its way down to the fences, completely abandoned by the boys who’d been playing Red Ass ten minutes earlier.

 


  • Excerpted from Frying Plantain, Copyright © 2019 Zalika Reid-Benta. Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press. Inc, Toronto. www.houseofanansi.com

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