Below is an extract from the novel by André Brink called Praying Mantis.
Pomegranates and Quinces
An extract from ‘Praying Mantis’ by André Brink
One day, when Cupido has more or less recovered, he is sent with a basket of pomegranates to the neighbouring farm when the Nooi’s sister lives. It means walking from before sunrise until the suns sits right overhead. The Baas cannot take a grown-up out of his work, and the Nooi cannot go herself, as she is in bed with new-born twins. So Cupido has to go.
A basket filled with twelve shiny red pomegranates is what she sends, and with it a folded letter to give to the woman on the neighbouring farm.
He walks and walks and walks. When he gets tired of walking, he rests in the shade of a big rock on an outcrop on a hill. After carefully thinking it over, he eats two of the pomegranates. No one will ever know.
That is what he thought. But when he reaches the neighbour’s farm and hands over the basket and the Nooi’s sister unfolds and reads the letter, she comes back to the kitchen door to ask, ‘Where are the other two pomegranates?’
‘What are you talking about?’ he asks, ashen with fright.
‘These are the only one she gave me.’
‘This letter says your Madam sent twelve pomegranates in the basket. Now there are only ten. So I want to know what happened to the other two?’
Cupido is struck dumb by the power of the letter. So dazed, in fact, that he is barely aware to the twelve blows of the neighbour’s sjambok that cuts into his buttocks and back like slashings from a knife. All the way home – and it is only then that the pain comes alive in his body – his mind keeps teasing and unravelling the mystery of the folded letter. But he never says a word to his mother and keeps it hidden inside himself. When she asks him about the cuts and welts on his back, he refuses to anser; and familiar with the inscrutable ways of white people, she does not press the issue.
And then, it must be about a year later, he is once again sent to the sister on the neighbouring farm on an errand. This time it is because of a death in the family (one of the children has been bitten by a geelslang) and there are twenty quinces in the basket. And another folded letter.
Along the way he is overcome by weariness and hunger. The taste of a quince is nothing compared to the sweetness of a pomegranate. But he cannot resist the temptation. He knows he cannot rest unless he has tasted a quince. But this time he won’t be caught out as before. So he first takes the letter the Nooi has sent along and hides it under a flat stone behind a large boulder. Only after he has finished the quince and carefully obliterated all signs of his feasting does remove the folded letter form under the flat stone and set out on the rest of his journey.
And then, true as Heitsi-Eibib, they catch him out again and enquire after the missing quince.
There are tears in his eyes as he explains to the woman all the precautions he has taken to hide the letter. It must have Gaunab, he says, who impregnated the letter with evil to damn him. To his amazement the white woman bursts out laughing, until her own face is also streaked with tears.
‘Now listen, Cupido,’ she says, and from her voice he can hear that there will not be another flogging. ‘It was not the letter that spied on you. I t was your Madam who wrote that she was sending you with twelve pomegranates the last time, and twenty quinces today.’
‘But that letter is mute,’ he protests. ‘ It hasn’t got a mouth, it cannot talk.’
‘No, it doesn’t have a mouth. But let me show you its way of talking. Look.’ And she spells out, word for word, what the letter says.
Cupido can still not quite understand. All he knows is that this is something bigger than himself. And that in some mysterious way the letter is holding hands with the big brown book the Baas uses to speak from at prayers in the evening, holding forth about and and Baas Jesus and a host of other people nobody has ever heard of.
This time he does discuss it with his mother.
‘I also want to put down words on paper Ma,’ he says. ‘This is strong magic. There is life in this thing they call writing, and it can run further and faster than you ever did.’
‘This will be the death of you, Cupido,’ she warns him, as always.
But at the very first opportunity that presents itself, he fearlessly faces the wife of his baas. She finds it so funny that, like her sister on the neighbouring farm, she begins to laugh. But he stands waiting patiently until she has finished, and the he says, ‘So will the Madam now teach me how to write?’
‘No,’ she says.
He can feel life dribbling from him like spittle in the sand.
She doesn’t have time for such nonsense, she says. But she will ask her older daughters, Cornilia and Jocoba. Perhaps they can give it a try.
The author has given us a story here that makes us gasp. On the one hand we know that the possibility of this happening is real. There is nothing noted in the story that is not real. On the other hand we are in disbelief at the lack of education of Cupido. Cupido, in essence, simply has no idea that communication is possible in written form. His ignorance of the written for of communication allows him to connect the wrong concepts to the ‘written form’ and, assuming it can see, he places it under a flat stone behind a boulder while he eats a fruit for the second time. He then discovers, also for a second time, that the written note has shared information between the two ladies despite him having made this impossible as he had made sure that it could not see what he was up to.
The above story is an empirical example of a far greater and more widespread reality than perhaps we are conscious of. Accountants for example have the concepts of accounting well formulated within themselves. Their concepts around chemistry might not be so well comprehended. They are, therefore, likely to make unrealistic conceptual links as regards chemistry just as Cupido did without the concept of written communication. Each human being is versed in some concepts but not others. Surely each one of us needs to say quite consciously that ‘I am not versed in some concepts’? It is, therefore, quite normal that others also are not versed in some concepts. My only real response to this must surely be patience, selflessness, love, and openness from myself for my own conceptual shortcomings – I must want to discover these more especially in a social sense. Conceptual shortcomings can occur in the physical scientific realm, in all trades and occupations and so on. They can also occur in the realm of the broader understanding of the purpose and meaning of Human life and existence.
Perhaps the very short saying ‘Water is to Life as Concepts are to change’ could assist one to bring the above reality into play in more situations in your daily life in a constructive way. The life force, in anything that lives, draws the material elements of the mineral world into a form and function. While the mineral elements, water being the key common element, are ‘bound’ into this dynamic unison with the life force of the living thing, the water partakes in a higher function of at least growth and reproduction. The moment that life no longer exists, the water and other molecules separate out and become once more subject to the purely physical laws. So it is also with concepts and our consciousness. The concepts are the water. Our consciousness is the ‘life’. Without consciousness human beings are no different to animals. As we draw in concepts to our consciousness we grow to understand more, and, as we understand more we can influence more. The ‘Cupido’ in us has consciousness. When we add a concept like written communication to our own consciousness, we can write, read and share. If we are damaged physically through injury, birth and destiny, emotional trauma, or we die, we reduce or nullify our ability to hold concepts and influence or change our own world and our relationships. Water is to Life as Concepts are to change. We need to be conscious of this for ourselves and for others. We can leave concepts on the ‘shelf’ as it were as regards ourselves. We can hide them from others too. Neither is good for the change that we need for the enhancement of the Social ordering of things.