This story is an exemplar for Short-short Sighted #18, “Ellipsis: What to Leave Out.”
So the following summer when the second princess came to Old Kwaku’s hut, he said, “What do you want?”
“My father said that I must learn wisdom from you.”
“And is that what you want?”
“I wouldn’t mind being wise, but when my sister returned from here last summer her hands were rough and red. She said she hadn’t learned anything at all. What if I go home like that? What man will marry a princess who has a farmer’s hands?”
“And if you must work to become wise?”
“I hope that you’ll have better luck than with my sister, however you do it. Make me wise, and my father will be pleased. Then he will marry me to a prince rich in goats and cattle. I’ll dress in fine clothes and have twice as many servants as I have now.”
“So it’s wisdom you want?”
“Do I look like a girl who wastes her time? Yes, I want wisdom! Stop asking the same question and get on with it!”
So Old Kwaku, he told her what he had told her sister, that she must work with him in the fields all summer and through the harvest if she wanted to learn wisdom. She didn’t like that idea one bit, but she couldn’t go back to her father and say that she hadn’t tried.
In his vegetable garden, Old Kwaku planted collard and okra and cowpeas. He showed the second princess how to cut the weeds down with a sharpened stick.
“I don’t think I’m learning any wisdom,” she said. “And look at my hands! Imagine what they’ll look like at the end of the summer!”
“Here is part of wisdom,” Old Kwaku said, and he began to rearrange some okra pods while they were still on their mother plants. He pulled one and nudged another and coaxed a third. He moved this one and that one together and tied the pods together in the shape of a little green person.
“That doesn’t look like wisdom to me,” the princess said. “Oh, I’m going to go home and die in my father’s house, an old maid!”
Elsewhere, Old Kwaku had planted sorghum. He gave the princess a strip of cloth to wave to scare the birds away from the ripening grain.
“This cloth is rough,” she said. “When I am married to a rich man, I hope that nothing this coarse will ever touch my skin! I will lie in the shade while other people work, when wisdom has made me into an excellent bride.”
“Here is part of wisdom,” Old Kwaku told her, and he began to bend this plant gently toward that one and to tie some of the seed heads together. Torso, arms, legs, and head. He tied the sorghum into the shape of a person.
“That doesn’t look like wisdom to me,” she said. “I hope I start seeing soon what this has to do with wisdom.”
In another place, Old Kwaku grew yams. He showed the princess how to clear the weeds and grasses away from the vines, and then he had her dig very carefully to expose some of the tubers without damaging them. He had her pour water from an earthen jar to wash the yams while they were still in the ground.
She stood up and flung mud from her fingers. “Digging in the dirt is no way to learn wisdom! You’re taking advantage of me! Show me some wisdom right now!”
“Here is part of wisdom,” Old Kwaku said. Gently, he moved the yams without pulling them free. He positioned two to be the arms, two to be the legs, one for the trunk and one for the head. Sure enough, he had put yams together in the shape of a person. He gently pushed the soil back over them.
“That doesn’t look like wisdom to me,” said the princess. “I should break that water jar over your head!” She stomped off to the river to wash her hands.
When it was time, Old Kwaku harvested the crops, all except for the figures made of okra, sorghum, and yams. He made a great big pot of stew, but he did not taste it and he did not let the princess have any, either. “Soon you’ll return to your father, with wisdom or without,” he told her. “We’ll fast tonight. Beginning tomorrow, let us feast for three days and see whether, at the end, you are wise.”
The princess didn’t want to fast, but Old Kwaku slept by the pot with the ladle in his hand, like a guard with his spear. So the princess went to bed hungry for the first time in her life. When she woke up, she was very hungry indeed. Old Kwaku was already awake. He had set out three bowls on the mat. The princess knelt down before one, but Old Kwaku said, “We must wait for our guest.”
Just then, a tiny voice called out, “I am here for now, but I’m afraid I’m not here for long!”
“Come in, come in,” said Old Kwaku. “We were expecting you.” He pulled aside the mat that covered his door, and in came a little green person made of okra. Old Kwaku filled the bowls and knelt before one.
As the princess reached for her bowl, the little okra person went to the third bowl and peered inside. “What if it’s poisoned?”
The princess looked at her stew. Old Kwaku took a taste from his own bowl and said, “It’s not poisoned.”
“But how do we know,” said the okra person, “that you didn’t poison only mine? Or hers?”
“You saw me dish them out.”
“Ah, but you’re sly,” said the okra person. “We weren’t watching you carefully. And even if you are innocent, a witch might have poisoned it all while you slept.”
The princess was very hungry, but now she sat looking at her stew without eating it.
“What do you care if you are poisoned in the morning?” asked Old Kwaku, eating some more of his stew. “You are going to die anyway when the sun goes down.”
“Why did you have to remind me?” shouted the okra person in a voice so shrill that the princess had to cover her ears. “I don’t want to die! Will I suffer? I don’t want to be in pain! What is death, anyway? Is it only the beginning of more suffering? Poor me! I am going to a place of torment, I just know it! When will it happen? How high is the sun? How much time is left to me?” The little okra person cried and fretted and cried some more. The princess sat with her hands over her ears all day. Old Kwaku calmly finished his stew, then dumped the untouched servings of the princess and the okra person back into the pot.
When the sun touched the horizon, the okra person ran around in circles, shrieking in terror until it fell down dead. Old Kwaku threw its body into the fire and gave the princess the empty bowls. “Take these to the river and clean them,” he said.
“First I want some stew,” said the princess.
“No,” said Old Kwaku. “Now we must fast until tomorrow. Then we will eat our fill.”
The princess took the bowls to the river. She was very, very hungry now. But what if something like this happened again the next day? How could she eat with such a terrible visitor in the hut? What if she starved to death? She brought the clean bowls back and lay down to try to sleep, but she couldn’t. She stayed up thinking about herself growing thinner and thinner.
In the morning, Old Kwaku set out three bowls again. The princess was both hungry and tired as she knelt before one. “We must wait for our guest,” said Old Kwaku.
From outside, a little voice called, “I’m here for now, and I hope I’ll be welcome!”
“Come in, come in,” said Old Kwaku. “We were expecting you.”
In danced a little brown and white person made of sorghum seeds. Old Kwaku filled three bowls.
As the princess reached for her bowl, the sorghum person said, “I hope this has tender meat in it!”
Meat sounded wonderful to the princess. She smiled at the thought.
“It’s a vegetable stew,” said Old Kwaku. He tasted his.
“Well I hope it tastes rich. I hope it’s as smooth as butter.”
The princess held her bowl, thinking of the wonderful taste of butter.
“It tastes as it tastes,” said Old Kwaku, eating some more.
The princess was still very, very hungry, but the stew did not seem so appealing, now that she had tender meat and butter on her mind.
The sorghum person said, “Well, I hope we’ll have something better tomorrow, something meaty and buttery that we can eat every day for the rest of our lives!”
“But you have only this day to live,” said Old Kwaku.
“That’s true,” said the little sorghum person, beginning to dance around. “Oh, I hope I am going to paradise! I hope I have an easy death, and that in the land of the dead, there is goat meat cooked in milk. Plantains in honey would be tasty. I’d like to have some roasted beef. After I am gone, I hope I won’t have to eat ordinary stews. I’ll have fish curry with groundnuts!”
The princess forgot that she was holding a bowl of ordinary stew as she watched the little sorghum person dance and listened to it name all the fine things that it would eat in paradise. Old Kwaku finished his stew. When the sun touched the horizon, the sorghum person fell over dead, and Old Kwaku threw it onto the fire where it popped and crackled. He took the princess’s bowl from her and dumped the stew back in the pot. He did the same with the third serving and sent the princess to the river to wash the empty bowls.
As she washed the bowls and brought them back, the princess hoped that tomorrow would be better. Hunger gnawed at her when she lay down on her mat. Old Kwaku slept by the pot as before. Perhaps he would fall asleep before she did and she could sneak a taste of stew. But weariness overcame even her hunger, and her eyes closed.
She awoke to the sound of a little voice shouting, “Let me in! I have no time to waste!” She opened her eyes to see that there were already three servings of stew on the mat. A little purple person made of yams entered the hut and stamped across the floor toward the bowls.
“You call this stew?” it said. “I deserve a better feast than this!”
The princess sat up and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. Old Kwaku picked up one of the bowls and began to eat. “It’s very good,” he said.
“Well, it’s not good enough for the likes of me!” insisted the yam person. It tried to overturn one of the bowls, but it wasn’t strong enough. “Why are your stupid bowls so heavy?” It kicked the side of the bowl.
“Calm down,” said Old Kwaku. “Life is short.”
“I know that life is short!” It kicked the bowl again. “I know it!”
The princess reached for one of the bowls, and the yam person said to Old Kwaku, “Aha! I see that you’re up to your old tricks, deceiving girls and making them work your fields. Look at her hands!”
The princess looked at her callused hands and stopped reaching for the bowl.
“You got a season’s work out of her, and what does she have to show for it? Her body is tired, her belly is empty, and is she wise? She’s wise to you, maybe! Maybe she’s finally catching on, you old fraud!”
The princess closed her hands into fists. She looked at Old Kwaku, who calmly ate his stew. She trembled. “It’s true!” she said. “You’re nothing but a cheat! I did everything you told me to do, and am I wise?” She seized one of the bowls.
“You are hungry,” said Old Kwaku. “Have some stew.”
“I’ll give you stew!” she shouted. She hurled the bowl to the floor. She picked up the other bowl and broke that one as well. “You promised wisdom and gave me only grief! If I were a man, I would kill you!” On her way out, she tore the mat from the doorway and flung it to the ground.
“Are you going to let her talk to you like that?” the yam person demanded.
Old Kwaku went on eating.
“Those were good bowls!” said the yam person. “How dare she break those bowls!”
When he had eaten his fill, Old Kwaku cleaned up the mess of stew and broken pottery.
“Look! She didn’t just rip your mat from the doorway! She tore the mat itself! Your best mat! Why aren’t you getting mad? You let her walk all over you! I could just strangle you for being so soft!”
Using some reeds, Old Kwaku mended and rehung the mat. When the sun touched the horizon, the little yam person stamped on the ground, screamed with fury and died. Old Kwaku threw what was left of him onto the fire.
Now the next summer, when the third princess came to visit, it was an altogether different story.
Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world. He writes all types of fiction: SF, fantasy, literary, mysteries, experimental, and work that’s hard to label.
For six years, Bruce wrote a column about the spiritual and psychological challenges of full-time fiction writing for Speculations magazine. Many of those columns have been collected in a book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer (an alternate selection of the Writers Digest Book Club). He is a motivational speaker and trains workers and managers in creativity and practical problem solving.
He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois. Bruce has also taught non-credit courses for the University of Colorado, Carroll College, the University of Wisconsin, and the private Flatiron Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the permanent faculty at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, a low-residency program that stands alone and is not affiliated with a college or university. It is the first and so far only program of its kind. Currently he is teaching creative writing and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant.
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