Fungee and saltfish

Antigua and Barbuda
Antigua and Barbuda

Daydreaming on that scar Anya seemed lost in another world. ‘What was she thinking?’ Amilcar wondered and couldn’t dissipate that now too familiar, sinking feeling that no matter how long he knew this addiction of a woman, he would never fully understand her. She sat there, alone with her thoughts, fingering that inch long scar above her left knee. “Helloooo, earth to Anya! Come in, Anya!’. He chuckled as she returned to the present with a smile. “You’ll have to take me on your space journey next time. I’m almost jealous.”, he teased. “Seriously though, you haven’t answered my question… how did you get that scar?” The scar attracted his attention only briefly and his first enquiry was more off-handed, half interested, but given Anya’s almost instant movement to another time, another space, his curiosity piqued to fully.

“That’s my fungee and saltfish.” Her reply was so calm and almost matter of fact-ish that he felt stupid for not knowing what she meant. She took his empty plate and glass, self-satisfied at its licked-clean state. She hadn’t intended to cook today, nor for him, but his unexpected visit brought something out in her; a something too long dormant. A nurturing something. So she cooked. Not one of her best meals, she knew, but he seemed not to notice or care. Amilcar practically inhaled the first plate of food and sheepishly asked for more, all before her forth fork-full of food had been swallowed.

In the small kitchen she began the process of cleaning the dishes. ‘The Process‘ she called it for, after living in her apartment for almost two years, the kitchen’s inadequate size was the one adjustment she still struggled to make. Clearly her landlord had no intention to renting this cubby hole to anyone who would eat or drink, his ideal tenant perhaps only photosynthesized. As she waited for the water from the faucet to slowly fill the basin she used to wash her dishes she half smiled half frowned at the remembrance of that scar’s birthday.

“Fungee and saltfish was the standard Sunday brunch meal in my family growing up” she started. “Did I ever tell you that?”. He shook his head ‘no’ and she couldn’t miss his child-like interest in this trivial little scar of hers that she hadn’t thought about in over two decades. “My grandmother strongly believed in having fungee every Sunday after church. It wasn’t always fungee and saltfish; could be fungee and whole fish, fungee and liver, fungee and mackerel, fungee and red herring… but ALWAYS fungee. ‘Is a wonder I didn’t turn yellow eating all that fungee! But honestly, I didn’t mind it most days. I love ah piece ah fungee and, except for liver and mackerel, I liked the accompaniments most times. Saltfish was my favorite though. So every Sunday after church, whether it was the middle of the school year or the height of summer vacation; Carnival time or Christmas time, the Robert’s household would be eating fungee and something. I tell you, my heart always went out to my Auntie Chantel. She hated fungee!… ‘is a wonder she survive to adulthood in this family! On Sundays she would make a little something for herself to replace the fungee. Boiled eggs were a typical choice for her but always, ALWAYS (and this was true even for those of us with a big ball of fungee in our plates) wood bread fresh from Mr. Samuel’s bakery on South Street, would grace her plate.”

The basin sufficiently full now, Anya turned off the tap, dunked the sponge into the water and brought it up a few seconds later, satisfied that it was saturated enough for its job. Without the slightest conscious thought she reached for the dishwashing liquid, squeezed an S onto the sponge, absentmindedly squirted some in basin water and began washing the dishes. Her smile threatened to return on touching his licked-clean plate and she momentarily wondered why she even cared what he thought of her cooking. ‘He’s just a man afterall‘ she told herself, ‘and not even yours at that!’.

“Granny never knew how to make fungee until after she married grandpa. As a matter of fact, she never even liked the taste of it. Learning to make it and, then, making it often, was a pride thing for her, I guess. You see my granny, mommy’s mother that is, is from St. Kitts and fungee wasn’t part of life for her growing up. But then a certain Mr. Roberts came into her life and, after they married, she moved here. Well back then there was some sort of rivalry going on between Antiguan women and Kittian women and they didn’t have any use for each other at all! My grandmother quickly learned that her new husband loved fungee and saltfish and she was determined to learn to make it. Well she learned. And she makes it good too. So grandpa was satisfied… and somehow, I presume to please him, the family practice of eating fungee and something every Sunday came about.”

He leaned on the kitchen counter just as much to rest his legs a bit as to get a better angle of her face as she spoke, her back to him. Though still confused at the connection  between her scar and her story something in him didn’t want to interrupt her; didn’t want  to shatter the smile that was his afternoon. He couldn’t have known his day would have taken this turn for the better and, as he casually listened to the melody of her voice, he silently congratulated himself for having the balls to just show up on her doorstep. He didn’t dare hope for anything more than a passing hello and, maybe, some light conversation for a few minutes. Instead, here he was, two hours later, with a happy belly, relaxing, enjoying an afternoon, with her.

Smiling, she turned slightly towards him and said “you know my grandfather was apparently quite the ladies‘ man in his day… but there was just something about that little woman from St. Kitts. She first caught his attention when she beat him in the Leeward Islands exams in Maths.  He was a brilliant mathematician, and knew it too (granny says he was a ‘conceited little so and so’) but this one year the highest score wasn’t his. Grandpa got 98% in the exam and was shocked to silence when he heard a young lady from St. Kitts scored 100%. He tried everything he could to meet her when she came to Antigua to attend college and, after meeting her, tried everything he could to make her his. I’m told granny wasn’t having it but I’m sure sure she was just playing hard to get. Grandpa was really a looker! Well, after her studies she moved back to St. Kitts and grandpa was distraught. You know that man sailed there to get her?! But granny refused to go back with him simply to be his ‘lady friend’. Shoot! You better believe grandpa proposed and married her then and there! And they stayed married until he died too. How’s that for a love story?”. He could see the smile turn mischievous with the slight curl of her lips and wondered whether she would stay with a man like him until he died. The thought, and his full belly, made him return her smile. Yes, she had definitely got under his skin… and he liked her there. Reaching for the towel hanging on a nail beneath the cupboard, he started to dry the dishes, slowly, deliberately. From he corner of his eye he could tell he was alone in the room again. Her not-quite-there-yet smile and far away eyes told him she had vacated the premises. ‘Where did she go this time?’ he wondered. He found himself wanting to go there, wherever, too.

“So do you see yourself starring in a love story like your granny’s some day?” he asked to snap her out of her daydream. Rolled eyes and a sigh were his immediate answers. Then, slowly shaking her head she said “no. For them it worked but for me? I don’t think so. For one, men like my grandpa just don’t exist anymore. I mean let’s face it, commitment to men our age means what? That he’ll spend more nights at home with you than with his other women, who you may or may not know about?” Her scowl was unmistakable and he sensed rather than heard the pained truth of her words. He wanted to touch her, stroke reassurance along the side of her face; rub confidence into her back; hold her close to refill her faith in love. “Not all men are like that” he said, and it sounded a lame response, even to him. She turned to look at him. He returned her stare, willing their locked eyes to unlock that part of her she guarded so fiercely. Her ebony eyes were like deep pools holding the promise of everything. He could get lost in them, he knew, and strangely, hoped he would. Blinking, she looked away, suddenly aware of their closeness. In her cubby hole of a kitchen they didn’t have much choice but to get cozy but there was more here than just the closeness of necessity. This closeness went beyond the physical and threatened to disrupt a place within she had existed in in solitude for too long to make another’s presence comfortable. He looked at her like he knew the most sacred of her desires and would fulfill them all. His eyes shook her to her core and she couldn’t understand it.

As she brushed past him to return to the patio where they ate lunch he, in casual pursuit, said “so you got that scar because you come from a fungee loving family? What, was your scar a sacrifice to the fungee god or something?”. A laugh. Short. Lazy. But a definite laugh. As he sat on the low concrete wall facing her she, slouched in the cushioned rattan chair with her legs stretched and resting on the wall, continued.

“I was about eight at the time and Kentucky Fried Chicken was THE fast food joint of choice. My uncle Eric took my brother and me there one Saturday night and told us we could have whatever we wanted. We both ordered the two pieces, drumsticks, with chips special and uncle Eric agreed to buy us ice cream from Thwaites Ice Cream Parlor on the way home. We didn’t eat the food at Kentucky Fried. He ordered our food to go and took us to the ice cream parlor. I’m not sure why uncle had the urge to treat us that day. Maybe he wanted to do something nice for us in that father figure role he assumed since our father wasn’t on the scene. Well, whatever the motivation, we were thrilled! I wasn’t even particularly hungry but it wasn’t every day a girl got treated to some Kentucky Fried Chicken and ice cream so I happily got my order and gratefully ate my ice cream, strawberry, in the car on the way home. After the ice cream my little tummy was done for the night so I put my two drumsticks and chips in the fridge intending to eat them the next day. Of course Kofi, my brother, didn’t know the meaning of term ‘another day’ so after his chocolate ice cream he wolfed down his two pieces and chips and had a soda to boot!

The next day I was excited because my two pieces and chips awaited. At church, all I could think about was how good that food would taste, especially once heated in the oven. The chips would be crunchy. The chicken extra tasty with some of the outer skin crunchy and the flesh juicy with seasoned goodness. My belly growled in protest over having to wait until after church for what my mind had been telling it would be ooooh sooo good ever since I woke up. The sermon dragged on for an eternity. It come like  Rev Dyer knew my plan and was determined to delay my sweet satisfaction as long as he could. Wicked man! Anyway when the sermon finally finished I was on my way home  to my two pieces and chips. When I got home I dutifully took off my church clothes, church panty included, put on my home clothes and went straight to the kitchen. I turned on the oven, took my food out of the fridge, carefully arranged them in a baking dish and slid the dish into the oven. The only thing left to do was wait. And wait I did, with my mouth watering just thinking about how good my two pieces and chips would taste. When the food was ready I didn’t even wait for it to cool a little. My little hands dived in and my mouth greedily devoured everything and lemme tell you Amilcar, it was goooooood! With that mission accomplished, I went outside to play. Less than an hour later my granny, herself back from church and after church grocery shopping, called me inside for Sunday brunch, fungee and saltfish of course. When I came in I casually told her that I had already eaten and wasn’t hungry. ‘You already eat? Eat what?! she demanded, so I told her of uncle Eric’s treat the night before. Well Amilcar, I don’t know what demon granny brought back from church with her but before I knew what was happening or could plan a hasty escape, granny’s church shoe was in one hand and she had me by the scruff of the neck with the other hand and lawd what a beating she laid on me that morning! I winced! I jumped! I pleaded! I bawled! I did everything except grab the shoe (I wasn’t suicidal, afterall!). Granny unleashed all the anger, frustration and whatever else on me that day and when the proverbial dust had settled there I was bruised, confused and upset over a beating I didn’t earn. When I looked down at my leg there was blood running down my knee. The shoe heel had connected and made a gash that spilled blood and in its wake the scar you are so curious about lived to tell the tale. She moved her eyes from the red and pink hibiscus plants she had been staring at and allowed them to rest, comfortably, on him. “So there you have it Mr. Tobin, that’s the story behind my fungee and saltfish.”

He returned her stare and in his she saw an intensity she hadn’t noticed before; an intensity that matched the timid fearlessness of her ebony pools. He gently traced his index finger along her scar wondering if his boldness would offend her. She didn’t stop him.




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