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John Shaw

Nokukhanya's Pickled Thumb

At first we said, "it will help
to pay for the funeral,"
Nokukhanya's final gift
after an age of pensioned usefulness.
Umnqandi did it with a kitchen knife
quickly before the thumb was cold.
Brandy kept it fresh
so that the pension official, behind
his brown table and book of matching prints,
gave a little sniff and suspected nothing.

After the funeral, which boasted
two cows for more than 600 visitors
singing hymns in the hot sun,
we sat around the jar and stared in silence.
"One more month," Sinoxolo said
and we nodded, quieting our consciences
that grandmother's digit was kept thus occupied
while shethumblessmet the ancestors.
Then it was school fees, and then our mealies failed,
and then the truck needed a new tire …
until it became a kind of twelve-year pact.
We fooled ourselves into thinking she would
be proud of her productivity at such an age.

But on her 110th birthday the mayor arrived
with his councilors to pay their respects
to the oldest woman in the province.
They brought a white cake and a photographer.
They found the jar and its tired occupant
and after that grandmother's thumb got to rest.

John Shaw is a an American physician who worked in a district hospital in South Africa from 1994 through 2000.

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