The Fool's Tomatoes
A month after my best friend Anan died, the fog of funk that had enveloped us still wouldn’t lift. Trapped in its stifling dampness, I sat in front of my home one early morning and looked over at his now desolate home, sad that his life was so prematurely snuffed by cholera. If sadness were the equivalent of tears, mine would flood oceans. I was that inconsolable even as I welcomed the sun’s spitting rays descending on me as though in cruel benevolence. The cocks crowed their morning alarms and the morning pigeons and sparrows chirped their tunes, together creating a harmonious cacophony as the village rose slowly to the beat. It was as if the flowers lifted their petals (to me, their mourning hearts reddened by sadness like mine) while the morning breeze swept them into a dance of harmony. The nearby stream, drinking deep the glory of daylight, seemed to capture the sunrays as well. A beautiful morning had arrived in our village. Yet I was sad because Anan was dead.
Anan was more than a friend. He was a brother. And more. After all, he had given me gifts so priceless and selfless I almost couldn’t believe he’d done it: two daughters (Ama and Abena). This had happened after I discovered that the gods, as though pulling a malevolently humorous prank, had neutralized the creative power of the juices flowing from my loins. On the insistence of family and friends, I had divorced my first wife because she was childless after five years of marriage. (“What good is a wife if she can’t bear you children?” they asked. “She’s a curse.”)
Two years and another marriage later, however, I still didn’t have children. Nor was it for lack of effort. I ate tiger nuts, chewed tree barks and drank potions designated for potency. So equipped, I was at it every night, pumping like a mad man, thinking that the stronger the thrust, the further the juices would go. No use. But my first wife had remarried and borne twins as though doubly to tease me. I concluded when her twins arrived that I was the one who’d failed to fertilize her obviously agile eggs. That discovery was so emasculating that I cursed the gods and God in equal measure and considered suicide to negate the sorry creation that I was. What were others saying when my back was turned? What use is a man if he can’t implant fertile seeds in his wife?
It was Anan who rescued me from this seemingly hopeless brink. We’d been friends since childhood. And we’d grown up as brothers, fostering a relationship that seemed so well balanced, helping each other, sharing hopes, mutually condoling over each other’s failures. So it was natural that my wife would go to him, rightly concerned that I would do something foolish in my depression. Anan came to see me immediately. He was that kind of person. At first, I was afraid to admit to him the cause of my despair. But patiently he waited by me and prodded gently like the elements in their constancy until my resistance eroded. At that very moment when I was rising out of my hopelessness, I knew what I must do.
He was a strong, handsome, virile young man and he wasn’t married yet. Women swarmed, men warmed up, to him. He must be able to help me. My wife Eno thought over the proposition a long time. Then, armed with her consent, I approached Anan. “I will be honored,” was all he said. It was a request I had made selfishly and I was hoping for a favorable response (although expecting a rejection). But I had underestimated his love. And so we’d allowed him into our bedroom ostensibly to sire my children. After they were born, Anan and I became even better friends, better brothers. He made no demands, never revealed the arrangement (to the best of my knowledge) and was good with the children.
His passion was farming. He kept a small farm on the outskirts of the village and would bring us some of his crops from time to time. Occasionally, he would help us on our little tomato garden in the backyard. I had never seen a man demonstrate such unbridled pride in gardening tomatoes. He often would stay for supper and it was as if the children knew he resided in them. And he kept them laughing with his endless humor and folktales. They loved him. And now Anan was dead and the children were unhappy. With his death, a novel rancor overtook us. I became easily irritated and often yelled at my wife and daughters. My wife yelled back and usually threatened me with bodily harm. My daughters recoiled into a tunnel of sadness from which they couldn’t escape. It was clear we all needed Anan. But he was dead.
The day I looked over at his empty home and reminisced, I decided to do something to rebuild the family. But all day, intention and deeds traveling parallel lines, I fought with my wife and children. That evening, Eno, Ama and Abena remained indoors. I escaped this female triumvirate that suddenly seemed closed to me. It appeared they had developed their own language, which reliance on the long album of our years of intimacy couldn’t decode. I stood outside hoping hopelessly.
And then, in the faded evening, a shadowy profile suddenly stood tall as a tree near my doorstep like a gift from nothingness, like an upstart come to usurp the pervasive melancholy. I peered at him in the waning discomfort of the moment, hoping for a sign. For moments, we stood facing each other, words muted by dawning recognition. There was no tension, just some uncertainty.
“How are you?” I ventured into the unbroken.
“I’m well,” he replied in bass.
“May I be of help?”
“I’m selling tomatoes,” he said. “I thought perhaps you’d be interested in buying this basket full.”
It was only then that I noticed the basket in his hands, as though suddenly illuminated by the offer, precariously but evenly balanced in both hands like a treasure. I looked harder as he seemed to come clearer under the dusky opaqueness of moonrise. I noticed his hair was a lush brush of unspotted white (as if a thousand years had woven webs of whiteness on his head). His upper torso was wrapped in a thick woolen coat, one of which I’d not seen in these parts in the last decade, at least. His chin, wet with sweat, rested on a scarf thrown carelessly around his neck and tucked into the opening of his coat in the front. A boutonniere protruded from a lapel. His trousers of bright purple seemed to pierce my recessing eyes. Even though they were partly covered with garden dirt, the red shoes adorning his feet glistened in the night’s dimness.
After I recovered from his impressive appearance I managed to say, “Thanks, but I have my own tomato garden.” I recalled the efforts my wife, daughters, I and, before he died, Anan, had put into the garden.
I made to return to my family, but he hastened a response. I was glad he did, as I didn’t want to leave him yet. “These are special tomatoes,” he said.
“Special tomatoes? How so?”
My famished curiosity must have been palpable, for he fed it well: “They are redder and richer and sweeter. You’ve never had any like these. I guarantee you that. Why don’t you try one?”
His claim sounded false on its face, even outrageous. Tomatoes are tomatoes. How different could one be from the other? But how could I say that? Recollecting Anan’s exceptional pride and effort in tomato gardening, it had to stand to reason that exceptional effort could produce special tomatoes. Teased by this false logic, I had to believe him. Nor was it simply what he said that prompted pause. It was also the manner he said it, the confidence he put in his words that was so daunting, and the way he held himself within the dawning night. Holding a tomato in a hand pushed toward me, he said, “Here, try one.”
Could they truly be sweeter? There was only one way to find out. I grabbed the tomato and took a bite. As I chewed on it his face lit with the recognition of I told you so. And at first I wasn’t sure, but then his tomato tasted sweeter, perhaps a lot sweeter than any I’d ever had. “I told you these are special tomatoes,” he reminded me. “Won’t you buy this basket full?”
“I will,” said I. “But you, who are you?”
“I’m a trader of sorts.”
“I wonder… I’ve never seen you before. Your name?”
“Call me Nana,” he said.
“Well, Nana, you have made yourself a new customer.”
And with that I bought the basket of tomatoes over a handshake. I realized he had garden dirt on his hands that transferred to mine after we shook.
I took the tomatoes indoors to my wife and daughters, announcing the purchase and uniqueness of the tomatoes with vigor. My wife Eno looked them over, rolled her eyes and stifled what I suspected was a strained laughter laced with mockery. That annoyed me. “Try some for yourself and you’ll see,” I challenged her. “You too, Abena and Ama,” I instructed my daughters. My wife refused, but my children obeyed.
“Well?” I asked.
Said Ama, “I’ve never tasted tomatoes this good.”
“And you, Abena, what do you think?”
“They taste very sweet, Papa,” she said. “As sweet as sugar.”
“Idiot!” I screamed. “How can tomatoes taste like sugar?”
We ate the rest of supper in silence, my anger corrupting the air like bad fecal stench. After the meal, Eno asked Ama to take the tomatoes to the kitchen, saying, “We’ll make a tomato meal tomorrow. Since they are so sweet perhaps they will taste like a meal of sugar.”
A meal of sugar. I suspected she’d said that to irritate me. (Could Anan’s death be making her so irritable?) And irritated I was as I went and sat outside. Why couldn’t she see the wisdom of my decision? She was simply ignorant, I concluded.
The next day I summoned the entire family to go to the garden to harvest our tomatoes. I’d show them how inferior ours were to Nana’s. But there were no tomatoes to be harvested. “How could this have happened?” I wondered aloud.
“Someone has stolen our tomatoes,” Abena cried.
I was angry with her. Need she state the obvious? But now I saw an opportunity to turn this misfortune to my advantage. “You see how much foresight I have?” I asked. “If I hadn’t bought those tomatoes yesterday, we’d have no tomatoes to eat today.”
We went back to work growing more tomatoes. And how I wished Anan were there to help us. Working on the garden seemed to help us, though. Even under the sun’s spanking, we would each recall something about Anan – the way he held a hoe over the soil, how he wiped a wayward sweat from his eyes, his face-wide grin – all observed when he’d joined us to work the little garden of tomatoes.
As it were, Nana’s tomatoes served us well for a long time and the rest of the family partook of them without dissent. And while it lasted it seemed the family had found peace post-Anan. Most days, the family would gather near the garden and recollect Anan’s folktales. We were anticipating the next harvest. Had I restored the status quo ante?
Some time later, the day before harvest, Nana returned. This time he was a wobbling mass of flesh – a sow approaching with leisurely pace, short and almost one with the soil as a snake. And his hair was now darker than bitumen. Despite this changed appearance, I knew it was Nana. Again he carried a basket of tomatoes. His voice was mellow, but he didn’t have to convince me this time. I bought the basket of tomatoes and invited Nana to join the family for supper. He declined. “For our mutual good,” he explained.
When I took the tomatoes indoors, this time Eno refused to sheath her disappointment. “These tomatoes are the same as any…”
“Be quiet!” I stormed out of the room, utterly infuriated. I refused to partake in the family supper, preferring instead to feast on a couple of Nana’s tomatoes, relishing every taste of their fleshy redness. It surprised me that Eno behaved as such. Didn’t she realize what was at stake? Had she forgotten what peace Nana’s tomatoes had brought us the last time?
The next day, I summoned the family to go to our garden to harvest tomatoes. But, again, all the tomatoes were gone. “Someone has stolen our tomatoes,” Ama wailed.
“Be quiet!” I yelled. “Now you see how wise I was buying Nana’s tomatoes!”
Once more, we had to rely on Nana’s tomatoes for a long time as we started growing our own again. And peace was restored as before.
The next time Nana came was the night before harvest. I was waiting for him – as though I expected him. It was as if a spiritual bond had grown between us. This time he was of medium height, his head was bald like calabash and he wore a goatee.
“Nana,” I said before he could speak. “I have missed you. Here, give me those tomatoes.”
He smiled and asked, “I will be seeing you?” And then he was gone, faster than the darkening horizon that swallowed him. I wanted to chase after him, beg him to help me. How could I face the family solo? How could I close the abiding chasm Anan’s death had caused?
My family greeted me with silence when I took the tomatoes indoors. But because none voiced disappointment, I had to bury the abuse I’d practiced in case anyone said anything unkind about Nana’s tomatoes. I supposed they’d either seen the wisdom of my ways or surrendered to my will.
The next morning we faced an empty tomato garden. Again. “You see,” I told my wife Eno. “Once again I have saved us from tomato drought.”
Slowly, ever so slowly, she turned to me and said, “My dear, have you wondered how every time Nana brings his tomatoes we come to an empty tomato garden?”
“What are you saying?” I asked.
She didn’t respond.
Later that night, there was too much tension in the house, too much left unspoken. Had I worsened matters with Nana’s tomatoes? I pretended to excuse myself, telling my family I was going to visit my friend Ananse. But instead, unobtrusively like a spider, I hid in a corner of the room beyond Suspicion’s reach.
After some idle talk, I heard Ama ask, “What do you think of these tomatoes?”
“Has anyone ever seen this Nana that Papa says has been selling him tomatoes?” asked Abena.
Perceptive. Very perceptive, Abena.
“No. Have you?”
“None of you have seen him?” Eno asked. “How come?”
“Remember we are indoors whenever he comes,” said Ama. “Papa goes outside for a while and comes back with a basket of tomatoes.”
“Have you noticed that whenever Papa brings the tomatoes he seems out of breadth and his feet are dirty?” asked Abena.
Oh, Abena, where are you going with this?
“Where does that leave us?” asked Ama.
“The elders have a saying,” Eno remarked. “It is the fool whose own tomatoes are sold to him. But I don’t believe your Papa is a fool.”
Or am I? Anan, am I a fool? Nana, am I a fool?
That got me wondering, not so much over my folly (or lack of it), but over he (or they) who had prompted Eno’s remark. I wondered if I’d ever see him again. If I saw him again, will it be in the summons of my wishes? A time of joy and celebration? Will we dance like brothers under sunrays? Would I successfully and permanently have communicated the joy of his tomatoes to my wife and daughters the way he communicated it to me? Or will I see him in hidden corridors of despair because of the inadequacy of doppelgangers? Will we remain hidden under moon clouds? Will I be waiting at my doorstep coughing, spitting, crying, sweating, defecating, urinating, farting, bleeding, sneezing, puking? Shall I be in fear of shadows creeping into the closets of the home? Or shall I be in a calm state of welcome? If I saw Nana again, would I be a fool whose own tomatoes are sold to him? Fool? But … I am not a fool.
Or am I?
(First published in Worldview, Winter 2003)