Celebrating East African Writing!
The farms nurtured. They bore fruits and extended to each man an affiliation limited only by his talent, his dexterity, and his enthusiasm and aptitude for labour. For Smokie Joe and his kin, a yearning had been roused and conquered. But for us animals and our kith, life proposed no such promise or connection. We came from the wrong places, the forests, the wilderness; we came strapping, fervent, penetrating and unrefined.
The farms declined our offers and we took refuge back into the woodlands, along water points and underground abodes. We re-organised and cut deals with sons of men. We traded the use of our brute force and our sinewy muscles for food and security. We tilled farms and dragged carriages, we laid eggs and produced milk, and in hushed harassment and aggrieved arrogance, we desired, and endured in quest for our own dream; that we could live in liberty, finally, and rise to welcome life with might and majesty or suchlike simplicity, life could accord.
And there were hard battles and so were sweet victories, fortifying the communal might of the Animal Revolution. We fought and tasted triumphs, tackling a new dream that consumed equality and allegiance as its energy. We were kings, and life was promising, bursting, and blooming. The calves, lambs and chicks of change that would make our generation a cringing, cowering, subdued, and pacific generation had not yet been conceived.
Well, that’s gone with the wind now. It’s an animal dream crushed, and just half a chicken century after the glorious Animal Revolution. Neighbouring farms, earlier on liberated, have been lost back to the descendants of Smokie Joe, who now dominate the landscape with might and power. Ask Dog—never has he felt so servile in his life than to Smokie Joe. He only has to see his pipe on his desk to feel undersized. He has only to smell his cigar and he gets timid like a mare—even now when he looks at his boots, stepping on that the gas pedal, taking us for a ride, so flexible and springy, he feels his heart sinking, as they say, into his paws.
Mine too, that’s why I sometimes plant my chicken shit right inside those boots, accidentally of course, as poetic justice. I guess, it’s those old, biased ‘accepted wisdom’ fed into us as young pups and chicks. Dog has sleepless nights (for our sake) thinking up ways to ruin Smokie Joe without being found out. Perhaps cut the brake cables of his truck, but then, we almost always ride in it and that would spell doom for all of us.
His three boys toil too, on the farm, and the two girls hide in the kitchen, perfecting skills, as plain Janes do (sad but true), being useful only in culinary arts and in housekeeping for what they lack in looks. Smokie Joe has to look at himself in the mirror to know where they got their deficient looks—and perhaps their dexterity. And as the boys hanker after bean-stalk cutes in short-skirts that can’t boil tea, they rust on the shelf. Sometimes at night around the kitchen table, they help the servants shell French beans; their wages, after powder for their dull faces, can’t even keep me in shoelaces, assuming I have shoes. Poor girls! Poor servants! They are just like the rest of us animals.
That’s why Smokie Joe has to run the farm with might and muscle—and only when he’s around. Right now, I bet you, as we drive to town, you wouldn’t find any servants at home. They would have taken a French leave to rave and crave in honour of the free occasion. Last night, when Ol’ Trevor developed complications, and had to be taken to the veterinary clinic, Smokie Joe ordered them to be around, just in case, as he wouldn’t return until this morning, and gave them explicit instructions to stick in the compound. The briefing was enough, we well knew, to insure their immediate departure, all and sundry, as soon as his truck hit the road.
The evening breeze, as sharp as a Somali sword, slices over our heads and we all cower at the back of Smokie Joe’s old truck. It negotiates the bumps and cruises round the hilltop with loud threats of speed. He shifts the gears carefully and peeks at us from time to time, as if we would jump off the truck! He is only met by Ol’ Trevor who, in her mournful eyes, is staring into empty space as she chews the morning’s cud; Dog and Cat are busy quarrelling, as they usually seem to be doing. I am the only one who seems collected and calm, and perhaps the eldest, north of fifty—in chicken years, that is!
A Cattle Crossing poster hangs dejectedly at the bend and it seems to have been written by a drunken monkey. Smokie Joe lights his pipe, and hums to the music from the car stereo.You’ve been riding
Smokie Joe puffs his pipe with unembarrassed and contented air, exhaling as if he has summed up the world in a phrase, or perhaps his own world.
Mrs Mabel waves; she’s a senior spinster and neighbour. Smokie Joe has a soft heart towards her, so he pulls to a stop, and they chit-chat. She has lost Daffy again, her favourite nanny-goat, and the only one she has. She peers, from time to time, into the distant bush searchingly, like a starved dog that can’t remember where he had hidden a bone.
Then her peeping eyes of poverty stare at the ‘goodies’ at the back of the truck. The disappointment of their search—perhaps for a goat track that would guide her back to a monarchy of realistic happiness—keeps them wary and cagey. She hadn’t done so well on the farm business, like Smokie Joe, but still retained that matriarchic authority about her. All her suitors were would-be inheritors of large wheat fields, and of course, she had hoped to settle down with one and raise her family on huge plantation tracts with plenty of servants. But man proposed—and woman accepted the proposal, if I am to contrast that ageing maxim modestly.
She leans at Smokie Joe’s half-opened window, but withdraws when the fumes hit her nose. Smokie Joe hums to the radio’s tune.You’ve been riding quite a while
‘Where are you taking my likkle darlings?’ She asks, throwing another generous look at the eggs in the tray.
‘Ol’ Trevor had a miscarriage last night; she has been uneasy all day, so I’m taking her back to the Vet. Nana here has chicken flu. I guess Titi and Toto just hopped along.’
‘Shall I have a tray then, I’ll surely pay you at the end of the week.’ She begs, still gazing expectantly at the tray, her mouth hanging open, wide enough to allow in a swarm of flies. Her pitiful eyes are dramatic, they are always so lively and gay, and explains why she almost always get away with every bout of begging. Today she forgot her eyeglasses and obviously didn’t apply her sun-repellent lotion in her anxiety, and light has starved the rosy dimples in her cheeks and depressed the lilied tint of her face, to give a shade blacker than Daffy’s coat.
Smokie Joe grudgingly lifts a tray and hands over to her—an example of his ‘widow and ol’ spinster’ charity—loving his crooked neighbours with his crooked heart.
‘But you can have it for keeps,’ he changes his mind, ‘if you ride alongside me, of course. I won’t be long. That way, we can come and look for your nanny together.’ And he puts his hands at the side pockets of his dungaree, exaggerating his manliness.
‘But, but…’ She blushes, and starts drawing sketches on the dashboard. Perhaps Smokie Joe has inspired poetic imagination in her, but they are only some knick-knacks of writing, such as a baby with an author’s pen might make for idleness or for practice
She gives in, in spite of herself, and opens the front door, enters and sits, in her queenly grace.
Smokie Joe is being sensible because he knows she won’t pay back, that easy, for that tray—they almost never repay! He has lost four shrewd neighbours for good by loaning them money and hoping they’d keep their word; they keep his money instead! He assumes they feel he doesn’t miss his money. He expects them to feel embarrassed, as he would have, if they did not repay him. Still, he was not about to lose another by refusing her a ‘tray’ loan.
Smokie Joe winds the side window for her and hits the road, cruising softly, as before. He throws us a distant look, increases the volume in the car stereo and settles to smoke his ‘eternal’ pipe. He whistles to the lyrics.At Christmas, more like an Easter bunny
‘That shong ish about Mishis Mabel.’ Dog suggests, lifting his ears as if to listen to the lyrics.
‘You have more fur than brains!’ Cat teases Dog, ‘And more foolishness than fur!’
‘You have more wormsh than shtomach.’ Dog retorts.
‘More fur than intelligence? I love that.’ Cow agrees.
‘Lishten to me you shilly gooshe.’
‘Why must I listen? I know who ate Mrs Mabel’s Bunny, last Christmas!’
‘Thish ish no time for bloody nonshenshe, it ish sherioush.’
‘When you want somebody to listen it ish sherioush.’ Cow joins, imitating the lisping Dog.
‘Cow never know de ushe of him tail till de butcher cut it off!’ Dog digresses, hitting at Cow.
‘Let sleeping dogs lie.’ The cow challenges back.
‘Every dog hash hish day!’ Dog balances the battle of puns.
‘That’s why you have more hair than intelligence!’ Cat goes on.
‘If the cover of the shalt shaker hides the shalt, then it ish more than the shalt. And sho the hair that coversh my intelligence ish more than the brainsh, for the lessh cannot hide the greater.’ Dog justifies himself.
They go talking about origins, that the ancient line of his great grandfather was descended from the very Dog that Ceausescu had seated in the House of Senate, with full ranks of a Comrade and even saluted by other Comrades.
‘Each day you tell that fairy-tale, you find different ways to tell it, different crap to spice it up.’ Cat sneers.
‘I’m shpicing up nothing. I’m telling you the factsh of my genealogy. They imported bishcuit from Harrods for my anceshtor, and delivered through the Romanian Embasshy in London. We were kingsh!’
‘But the trouble is—no liberty! A hungry dog believesh in nothing but meat.’ He muses dreamily but wakes up at once! ‘It’sh the shame with me—I can think of nothing but liberty.’
They roar rumbustiously with laughter at their dull dry jokes, but Doggy dries a tear when Cat informs him about the death of her kitten, and stretches, yawns, sighs, and groans like any other Dog with a rendezvous at the back of his mind. He then pokes his head against the railing of the truck unconsciously, and begins to pant, mechanically lolling out his tongue.
‘Why is it that,’ Cat asks, ‘dogs always feel a sweet sensation when they poke out their heads out of car windows?’
‘Like in Bolt? He watches too much TV and Bolt!’ Cow suggests, and they all go into giving opinion about our favourite character, Bolt.
The air is electric and crunching and shouting out with opinions, and they pretend they have some. Each one of us animal has opinions to give, and they are demanded in return. They misinterpret my absence of opinion as opinion.
Smokie Joe doesn’t shout at us to stop the incessant noise, but instead, he increases the volume in his stereo.Ooh-ooh
‘Why not perfect your acting shkills by watching more Tom and Jerry?’ Dog says to Cat, after Bolt’s intelligence is ridiculed. ‘What a shtray Cat! You shall go back to the shtreets where all condemned catsh live!’
‘Shut up, Doggy, you can’t! You haven’t the invention of a cockroach! Can you fast for a week with bran and water?’ Cat asks.
‘Yesh, and alsho pray for a month with moushe and pigeon.’ Replies Dog.
‘Sshh!’ I warn, ‘when Chicken merry, Hawk de near! Why don’t you be reasonable like Ol’ Trevor here?’ I plead.
‘Shut up, you, chicken heart! Don’t you know that a totally reashonable cow is alwaysh pregnant and calving, haha!’ Dog teased.
‘Calves are a blessing from Taurus!’ Trevor could hardly restrain herself.
‘Well, Taurus can have the pupsh and bitchesh back!’ Dog went on.
The truck speeds past the mulberry plantation that is even mentioned in the encyclopaedia.It’s just the poor’s brain washing
At the Zebra Crossing, we meet Mini, Dog’s half-sister, wobbling in the mud-spattered pot-holed section of the road with the energy levels of a starving village mongrel. Smokie Joe slows down, to let her get out of the road. He becomes impatient and gives a deafening hoot for the silly bitch to get out of the way. She doesn’t. She has recognised Ol’ Trevor and is barking madly, coming towards the truck. We make telepathic noise and even Smokie Joe recognises her in his smoky mind.
‘Be careful now, ol’ un!’ Mrs Mabel warns.
He gets out of the car and hoists her to the back of the truck. He is so mechanical, he doesn’t even think about it. In a while, we are riding once again like before, him curiously blowing smoke into the air like a Victorian steam locomotive.Cinderella and her long lost fellow
Dog breaks the pregnant silence in an actor’s voice. ‘Forgive me my shweet lady, but I haven’t had chanche to shay “hidy dey do’’ to you.’ He tries to kiss Mini’s paw but she pulls it away.
‘Spare me Doggy; I am not in the mood for nonsense. If I permit you to kiss my paw you’ll be yearning for my elbow next, then my shoulder!’ She was offended.
‘Oh, you won’t return my compliment becaushe you are not in the mood. Oh, the logic of bitchesh! Come to think of that, I never have liked bitchesh; I could do without their shillinessh! Thank God I’m no daughter of a bitch! Mutton dresshed as lambsh! Jusht to shee one in the dishtance getsh me horny. My shaliva shtarts pouring with rage.’
‘You can’t touch us, Doggy, we are the emancipated bitches. ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL! No more incest! How can children be fathers of their own brothers? We can’t be the very same to our mothers who bore us! To be son and husband—the very same who mount their father’s beds still wet with their mother’s milk! What inglorious shamelessness?’ Mini sounds seriously disturbed.
‘All animalsh are equal but shome of ush are more equal.’ Dog adds, looking greedily at Mini’s shy tits, like he never turned down a third course of any meal.
‘Your depraved psychosis will plague this land. O thunderbolts, where art thou? But what use for the thunder? O precious villain!’ Mini swears, but she knows, as much as I do, that her trepidation to bring down a piece of the sky is only a vacant boasting. That’s the noble office for my husband, for when he crows early in the morning, the sky and Sirius star obeys him and comes out of the sky, and dawns listens to his crows. For Doggy, Smokie Joe’s leash is enough.It’s just the poor’s (… brain washing)
Smokie Joe slams the brakes so hard and abruptly. The truck jerks. Swerves from the left. Swings to the right. My chicken heart comes to my beak and I shake. And before we know it, we have hit a nanny goat, and on a Cattle Crossing sign! She now lies in a pool of blood, kicking the last kicks of dying horse—nanny, before finally succumbing to her internal injuries.
Baa, baa black sheep. Baa baa have you any wool? Baa…dead!
‘Oh my Living God!’ Cries Mrs Mabel. It’s her lost Daffy.
But Smokie Joe only gets out of the truck to asses the damage on his bumper. Then comes behind the truck and curses at the careless number of eggs that has broken. Throws us his meanest looks, but never for once ask us how we are feeling, he just goes back to his steering wheel, trying to restart the stalled old truck. My feathers are still ruffled.
‘You killed her!’ Mrs Mabel stares disbelievingly at her favourite nanny. ‘Only you Smokie Joe, can do this! Told you to drive slowly, didn’t I?’ She gives him a ‘didn’t-I-tell-you’ look, but obviously knows its futility. Even Mrs Columbus with her cold shoulder couldn’t have prevented her husband from that carelessness of going out to sea and discovering America.
‘Why do goats keep crossing these roads so slowly?’ Smokie Joe keeps swearing. ‘Why can’t they learn like the dogs?’ Something occurs to him, and suddenly he seems so surprised, finally, although I didn’t see anything about the death of a nanny goat on the road that went beyond the bounds of the ordinary. His eyes look away from where Daffy lies, as though he had thoughts to hide. His pipe shakes for once in his lower lip.
The dead nanny lies, as dead nannies always do, in a uniquely dreary monochrome, her rigid limbs slouched in the rough tarmac, with the head forever bowed to the yellow sign. Her pallid brow with bare patches over her depressed eye-socket had been re-organised by the screeching tyres. The ears had subdued, and in the way typical to the dead, the jutting muzzle seemed to compress the almost popped out tongue.
She had transfigured divinely and had grown even fatter since I last saw her, but, as is always the case with the dead; her countenance was more composed and above all more venerable than when she lived. The dead still looked peaceful—never mind if Orwell got terrified by dead humans he saw when he was supposedly shooting down rogue elephants. The appearance on Daffy’s face testified against it, and added that, what was crucial in her life had been consummated, and done properly with a nanny’s dignity.
Further more, there was in that dignified expression, a caution and a counsel to the living. This reproach, however, seemed an afterthought—don’t cross the road carelessly—or, as I felt, it was an out of place thing, at least not for my kind. We all stood there, paying our deepest last respects and feeling an assured discomposure, even Mrs Mabel hurriedly crossed herself once more, turned, opened and slammed the truck door— too hurriedly, and too disregarding of all her queenly decorum. I think she was oblivious or just too hysterical to care.
‘Why do they keep crossing the road like they were going to a wedding ceremony?’ Smokie Joe kept cursing, even after the truck had jump-started, and his music filled the mourning air.Little Miss Muffet she sat on a tuffet
Yes, why indeed, were our kind—goats, sheep, cows, chicken, dogs and cats—dying on the roads day by day, in spite of the Zebra Crossings? The Cattle Crossings? Ol’ Trevor has the explanation, she read it somewhere in the Animal Farm Chronicles. Hearing the story from her would be like hearing the theory of relativity from Einstein himself.
A few chicken centuries ago, our ancestors shared a cab home after an evening out. At their destination, Cow paid her fare in full amount. That’s why she crosses the road majestically, gracefully, or sometimes, at her choosing, even doesn’t get out of the road at all, for she owes no one, nothing. Furthermore, she has a Cattle Crossing sign specially designated for her kind.
Goat paid half-amount, is why she moves out, but quite reluctantly, because she has to—she still owes a half-much!
But watch the dog as he crosses the road—always too fast! For he paid nothing! He’s on the wanted list, and drivers don’t get to hit him much too often because he darts like a female lizard being chased by her mate. He’s guilty. He’s afraid.It’s just the poor’s brain washing
Cow’s anxious eyes, still reeling from her personal loss, and now this, drift damply inside her yawning dark sockets; semi-cloaked by stern upper lids and weighed down heavily by bushy white brows. Deep furrows fan out from the soggy corner, stretch past the muzzle, and suddenly she puffs up her nose and licks at her snotty mouth.
Her old gaze is straight ahead, but at what? Perhaps at nothing. Some imperceptible target. Some parting point of exodus. I feel for her, it has to be the crossing business. Her kind has to learn the hard way. Even Chameleon learns to run faster when the forest is on fire. She stops chewing. She shakes her head as if to say this isn’t her head she has right now—something that used to belong to Shrek or Nemo.
The sun plays hide and seek with the fluffy clouds and genially swathes the oriental sky with an ornate layer of gold. We are heading back to the farm from the Vet. I’ve witnessed two more road carnages. The last one was a chick, barely a year old (in chicken years)! Where are Chicken Crossing signs, before all chicken are wiped out from the face of the road? Scattered like locusts all over the railway track and crushed to death in hundreds by passing trains? Bewildered creatures that will one day rise up in swarms from their graves and curse, ‘we never took a ride in your cab, yet you buried us by the roadside! Woe unto you?’
Who will run up against a hit-and-run truck that even after hitting you, keep on going and a-going and it won’t stop till the day Sirius hits Planet Mongo? Good thing, when I am done for, the wheel has run over me, I will have no reason to get anxious about the future. Death is just an old comic fool, but every animal sees him in a brand new costume. Until that day when wheels grind me, as I walk under the shadow of death, I will feel no fear, for I shall not be able to find consciousness! The Michelin tyre that would compress my skull down to the tarmac, shall help transport me to Sirius, which with its bluish light, has always caused wonder and terror in my husband’s mind, in fact I think he worships it as a divinity.