Once upon a time, residents of the Berbice River kept communal farms. The farm sites were located fair distances from the housing areas. That arrangement necessitated all or most of the men of a district to be away at the same time for a certain period. They would go away camping in April for the planting of corn and again in September for the harvesting. Either task might take months to complete. At such times, mainly women and girls were left at home to ‘paddle their own canoe.’
At one such time, when the women and girls of Develdt were left to paddle their own proverbial canoe, they found that they had an unregistered passenger aboard who, from all appearances, was a chicken thief and a smart one too for, for all their surveillance, they could not lay an eye on him but their chickens kept disappearing, one by one, consistently. The women grew more and more uneasy, very uneasy. What were they dealing with?
For all their watchfulness, they never saw a shadow or heard a disturbance among the fowls. For weeks it remained a disturbing mystery. Then one day, with nothing of chickens or thieves on her mind, Esme Vandenberg was sitting on her steps, in high daylight, when the thieving stow-away, for whatever reason made bold, meandered into her yard, took a plump chicken before it could squawk, and left. As easy as that and it all happened in less time that it takes to wink an eye. Esme froze. It took her five minutes to thaw off. The thief was a camoudi – a boa constrictor!
Women of the Berbice River, unlike town and city women, were denied the luxury to stand on chairs and scream at the sight of a mouse. Like men, they were expected to deal with the challenges. But a camoudi! Nevertheless, the women held council and fifteen-year-old Melrose and her thirteen-year-old cousin, Bertil, having volunteered, were duly elected to slay the beast. It was the planting season of 1924.
The trust placed in them by the community of women, gave the girls a keen sense of responsibility not untouched by some feelings of importance. Be it so, they immediately sat together to consider their assignment. First they had to find where the reptile had its abode. They did that by diligent sleuthing. The snake, they found out, lived a goodish distance outside of the village in the trunk of a large fallen tree. The girls continued to keep cautious surveillance until they were able to ascertain the exit of the hideout and the snake’s daily routine. Armed with that knowledge, they began to plan.
At last they agreed that they would go to the camoudi’s cave in the early afternoon, taking with them a very sharp cutlass and a live trussed up chicken. Melrose would be in charge of the cutlass; Bertil would be in charge of the chicken. Once there, they both would take up their positions promptly. There would be no talking and no lingering. Melrose would go to the exit side of the log and would stand at a ‘comfortable-to-chop-from’ distance from the exit with her cutlass held up in readiness.
Bertil, caretaker of the live chicken, would go to the other side of the tree trunk so that she should be opposite to Melrose. She would then immediately throw the chicken over to Melrose’s side, in front of the exit but far enough away from it to oblige the snake to put its head out far enough for it to be chopped off by the waiting Melrose. And Melrose, standing at a sensible distance from the exit, would comfortably sever it from its body with one stroke of her sharp weapon.
The young women anticipated that the snake would be lured out by the scent of a fowl at its door; and mission accomplished, they would then retrieve their chicken and return home jubilantly. The plan was fool-proof. Why would it not be?
After all, they had put a lot of practice into the operation. Using a real fallen tree for prop, the two girls had rehearsed the drama step by step, over and over, till they could do it with their eyes shut. Satisfied, they had presented it to the community of women for examination and approval. The plan was unanimously approved.
Melrose and Bertil left on their assignment as excited as if they were going on a fishing trip. Nothing could go wrong? A tune played in their hearts and a smile twinkled in their eyes as the smell of the glory that would follow their successful expedition wafted around them. They muttered, “Your days are numbered, snakey.” Then they got into the character of sleuths and each moved as silent as a serpent. They didn’t speak; they barely breathed. Each girl rehearsed silently what she would do when she reached the place of action. They never reached the place of action!
They got in sight of the snake’s lair. Automatically their stealth increased and a smile of anticipated pleasure curved the corners of their mouths. They began to think, “Another three feet and . . . . “ But they never completed the thought. With an unexpectedness that shocked them, with a speed that dazzled them, the camoudi, all in less time needed for one breath, whizzed out of its hole, snatched the fowl from Bertil’s hand and whizzed back in, faster than lightning.
Melrose raised her cutlass stupidly and Bertil gazed at her empty hand foolishly then, suddenly realizing the gravity of their vulnerability they bolted out of there simultaneously, faster than lightning.
The editor of The Arts Forum column, Ameena Gafoor, can be reached by e-mail: [email protected] or by telephone: 592 227 6825.
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