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Auspicious Beginnings

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The smell of fresh meat from the shack on the edge of the port drew Zachary in, and when he spotted a semi-familiar face, he decided to sit down next to him. It was that foreman-fellow, he recollected, from the third group of lascars who had clambered up the side of Ibis as she lay berthed amidst the larger ships in Cape Town. ‘ so many monkeys’ Zachary had guiltily caught himself saying, conscious of his own stored up resentment at the drunk slurs of ‘woolly-pated monkey’ that were muttered or sneered as he played marbles in the alleys of Baltimore. And now here he was, in Africa, the land where his mother’s parents had been taken from, and it seemed easier to sit amidst the motley seamen who so clearly belonged elsewhere, than to strike up a conversation with the land-rooted women whose skin and hair and noses might bring to mind his mother’s church group, but whose strange, chattering voices seemed utterly, irrevocably, alien.

The casserole looked like something his mother might have cooked for Sunday supper. But when Zachary reached out with his knife and cut into what he heard the lascar next to him call bobotie, he was startled by raisins falling out, like some fancy Christmas mince pie. The steam rose rich and complicated, and after weeks of brined beef, Zachary took a moment to simply admire the eggy sheen on the crust.

He felt an elbow dig into his side, and glanced towards the man with the trailing moustache. The expression on the lascar’s face shared a conspiratorial pleasure for well-cooked, warm food that broke the otherwise inscrutable angles of his face. The man did not look like any of the Chinamen he had seen on his one trip to the great waterfronts of Boston—his eyes were more like a Red Indian’s and his skin darker than a mulatto. Zachary had spent the morning listening to the first mate grumble imprecations at each lascar foreman being interrogated, and he suspected the man had the same intentions as the absconding crew.

Zachary took a generous mouthful, and his eyes widened in surprise. This was a wholly new culinary terrain his mouth was discovering—these were spices beyond the cinnamon sticks he knew from plum puddings. He had kept his little box of salt at hand, used to treating it as a medicinal flavouring, but it was unnecessary. The lascar grinned under his feather-tailed moustache as Zachary put it back inside his pocket, and took another, heartier bite.

“Mich’man like too good?”

Zachary merely nodded, seeing no need to attempt right now a conversation in the strange patois he was going to have to learn at sea, given the first mate’s rumblings about ‘devilish gobbling’. He decided the minced meat must be pork, and he thought that perhaps he recognised some citrusy taste. There were slaves he had met who spoke of plantation food from the South that still carried the flavours of ‘the old folk’, and Zachary wondered anew at his starting out as the carpenter who spent the journey here plugging the peepholes drilled into the ‘tween-deck by black bodies like the ones around him, and ending up here, second mate, looking for some resemblance that would connect him to the grandfather his mother rarely talked about; the big strong buck who had left—been taken—from this continent.

Sighing, Zachary finished eating, and then poked his head awkwardly around the back of the shack. “The food—the bobotie—was very good,” he said shyly, not sure the cooks would understand. The lascar, who had followed him in bemusement, laughed, and gestured a translation that encompassed various exaggerated faces depicting Zachary’s sensory initiation into the exotic.

Listening to the ensuing culinary chatter, Zachary glumly acknowledged the impossibility of all his fantasies regarding eating the traditional meal of his forefathers while an idealised family of cousins frolicked freely in some nebulously nearby region of this African land. These portside shanty cooks seemed to be closer to the Eastern Asiatic race that the lascar came from, and as he peered at the spice boxes, he saw the cloves and cardamoms associated with the Orient.

Zachary pointed to a peculiarly lurid orange spice he saw being folded into the mince, and asked after its name. He did not quite catch the word, filtered through the lascar’s voluble gibberish, and the ensuing debate between cook, server and customer was too familiar for him to intrude into.

There was also a small black boy stacking dirty dishes in a corner of the shack, eyeing all the voluble gesticulation with the same kind of aloof curiosity that Zachary himself had displayed when confronted with foreign sailors stepping from dockside to deck in Baltimore. The cook turned from the heated discussion to throw a question to the boy, but the boy only jerked his head in what Zachary thought must be the cultural equivalent of a shrug.

The boy’s eyes slid indifferently over Zachary with no answering spark of racial recognition, and, it turned out, that the spice was not local to the continent, after all.

Zachary thought of the crew that had abandoned the Ibis, white and black alike. While it was possible that some might indeed leave some trace of themselves here by way of one of the dockside whores, it was unlikely in the extreme for any black seaman to settle here, and call themselves an African. To leave behind being a nigger and mulatto and return to some ephemeral primordial inheritance that Zachary sensed he would never actually be able to find in the hybrid cesspool of a trade port.

But Zachary decided that he had enjoyed the new savoury taste of the bobotie, and so he smiled at the lascar, and was able to greet him by name three days later, when the ship master had made his decision. Serang Ali brought with him a crew full of chittering men whom the captain called niggers but who resembled neither the jigaboos of the Maryland plantations he had left behind, nor the solemn, undiluted black savages of jungles that he was told existed beyond the Cape of Good Hope. The night after the lascar crew came on board, the first mate did a runner, and the morning after, Zachary walked across the deck till he found the face he was looking for.

“If you could come with me,” Zachary said, “we need to get provisions for the ship. And I thought you could help me with the marsallahs.”

Serang Ali took a long hard look at Zachary, before nodding, and then they went down together, into the town, to buy spices for the upcoming sea voyage.

A week later, when they were well out of sight of the segregated compounds of the port, the captain invited Zachary to join him at his table—a sign that even white men recognised the bond of familiarity when faced with men whose skin, while closer in shade to their own, was overshadowed by the strangeness of their tongues. Since the time during his boyhood when he watched his father mount a horse and realised that his own light tan matched more the rider’s tint than the black groom’s, Zachary had known, theoretically, that he was high yaller enough to pass. But it took Serang Ali’s self-satisfied smirk as the lascar supervised the chuckeroos waiting on the table in the cuddy to bring bring home the monumental heft of his progression.

Afterwards, Serang Ali would share his own portion of resum with dal and achar, and gleefully observe Zachary prove his increasing tolerance for tongue-burning.

One night, the sea was rougher than usual, and Zachary got a nasty cut about his chin. Serang Ali led him with a proprietary hand to the galley, and insisted on patting into the wound some of the bright orange spice Zachary remembered. Zachary thought it would sting, but for such a sharp colour, there was remarkably little to fear.

“Malum Zikri mixee this with milk-skin, he become too muchi chikna, like damn one-piece pukka sahib. No? Too muchi white-white, be too muchi good thing?”

Zachary rolled his eyes. “Aint got no time for hocus-pokus beauty spells, Ali, and I never cut up no toads for my warts, either.”

Serang Ali laughed, and then even louder, at some inside joke, when a little smear of orange ended up brushed on Zachary’s forehead. Then he turned and walked towards the prow, and Zachary stood beside him at the wheel. Medicinal spices, he decided, should be added to the day’s list of praiseworthy things. Probably there would be even more to discover when he actually landed on shores further dawnwards.

First mate and serang steered together, the ship’s figurehead pointed its beak towards the east, and a turmeric-coloured sunset lit up the sky against their backs.