Megan waited for Bordeaux to finish telling his story before beginning her own. “I used to get a ride to school with Bordeaux, because my mother worked. In the morning, I would have to walk over to his house, and wait in the kitchen while he and his sister had their breakfast. His mother would make them a bowl of warm pap in the morning. I would see this,” Megan stated, pausing dramatically, “having just eaten my bowl of cold cereal at home. But not only would his mother make them warm pap every morning, but when they came into the kitchen, she would send them outside to call for the fairies. Then when they went outside, she would sprinkle their pap with little fairy tracks.”
“Oh Bordeaux!” Tanya exclaimed. “Really?”
“What are fairy tracks?” I asked.
“Just what Megan said. My mom would make us bowls of warm pap, and set them out for us on the table. Then we’d have to go outside, into the garden, and call for the fairies. While we were out there, my mother would sprinkle little rows of colored sugar on top of our porridge. We’d come back in, and there they would be, the feetjie spoor, little fairy tracks, on our porridge.”
“Oh Bordeaux,” Tanya said, catching her breath after laughing for a moment. “No wonder you’re gay.”
– From The Boy in the Volkspele Dress, Alexander Santillanes
I was raised on two kinds of breakfasts, pap and cereal. Pap is the Afrikaans term for porridge. It was usually made with maize meel and it came in three forms, as a sludgy white porridge, the brown Maltabela porridge or as krummel pap, which was a drier type of porridge, it literally means crumble porridge.
On odd days of the week my mother served us porridge for breakfast and on even days it was cereal. To this day, odd days are still not my favorite days of the week, as I strongly disliked porridge in all its manifestations. I could not stand the stuff.
I clearly remember feelings of dismay and abject horror when a bowl of porridge was placed in front of me. A treeless island floating in an ocean of milk. The milk was supposed to cool the hot porridge. To my youthful eyes it just looked gross.
One wonders why my mother did not just stick to cereal altogether. She would have made both our lives a lot easier.
But my mother is a no-nonsense kind of lady who does not take too keenly to persnickety kids. She is also a fairly wise lady, as most mothers are. So she conjured up a marvelous plan to wheedle me into not only eating, but also enjoying pap.
On one of these nasty odd mornings, when I begrudgingly trudged into the kitchen, she told my siblings and I to run into the garden and call the fairies and gnomes to join us for breakfast. I did not quite understand what was going on. I felt simultaneously baffled and excited.
The three of us, my younger sister and brother and me, ran into the garden and began calling, “Fairies! Dwarves! Come out now!”
After a few moments my mom called us back into the house, “Come look here! In the kitchen, in your breakfast bowls. Quick!”
We hurried into the kitchen and as I drew nearer to my bowl I noticed bright candy colored dots, slowly melting into the bowl of steaming porridge. “They were, here, but they left again,” said mom, “But see, they left their tracks on your porridge!”
I was ecstatic and quite literally tickled pink. Fairy and gnome tracks in my porridge? They must like it! And it looks fantastic! I sat down and enjoyed my bowl of porridge with a brilliant smile on my face.
Two days later my mom sent us outside again. And again we returned to find fantastic trails of fairy tracks in our bowls.
This became one of my most beloved childhood traditions. We never let my mom forget to send us outside to call for fairies. I used to run and call into the prettiest flowers and the thickest growth of ferns, where I suspected our magical friends with the decorated tracks lived.
Some years later, while snooping through the kitchen cabinets, I discovered a bottle of cake decorating sprinkles. Somehow I never drew any conclusion between the fairy tracks on my breakfast and the sprinkles on my cupcakes, but this day, something clicked.
I confronted my mother with the evidence and she admitted that there never were any fairies or gnomes traipsing through my bowls of porridge. I guess I was old enough to know, by this point I did not believe in Santa or the Easter Bunny anymore (although I believed in the Tande Muis or Tooth Mouse, our take on the Tooth Fairy). I finally discovered that the only fairy was my mother, and her prints were a bottle of cake sprinkles.
Instead of growing bitter, however, I decided to continue humoring my younger siblings with this ritual. And it still made eating porridge a lot more attractive.
In the summer of ’86 we moved from Paarl in the Western Cape to Hoedspruit in the former Northern Transvaal. From a yard with big oak trees and rose gardens, we relocated to one with trees that had thorns on it and the danger of snakes.
It still counts as one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. I hated the new town. It was ugly, dusty, and dull. I was not making any friends at my school since I was the only kid who did not hunt or cared to hunt and did want to grow up to be a farmer. I felt unsafe in our new house on a plot where there were no street lamps to light up the yard at night and the place was crawling with enormous bugs and snakes. I stopped playing with all my favorite toys. My best friend was still in Paarl and the highly imaginative stories we made up just did not seem fun anymore. I was a miserable 11-year old. I felt isolated and enormously downhearted.
On one of those first porridge mornings my mother sent us outside again. I was in a terrible mood and started making a scene, but my mother firmly asked me to go outside and do as she asked, for the sake of my little brother.
Dejectedly I went into our ‘dangerous’ new garden, shouting for the fairies and gnomes to come out in an angry voice, swearing under my breath (I remember thinking ‘fart’ and ‘crap’ were nasty words, so I kept on saying it). All of a sudden it seemed like they were to blame for all that was wrong in my life. And I started to REALLY hate porridge again.
I think my brother came round to who the fairy really was not long after that. Either I showed him the bottle to be spiteful, or perhaps living in a farming community with all these gun-crazed kids was just not conducive to a childhood where fairies and gnomes were part of one’s daily life.
Not long after all of that, the fairy tracks tradition ended altogether and the bottle of sprinkles was relegated to the back of some cabinet.
I was well on my way to high school, when sometimes I would wander off to swampy parts of the farm where the ferns were growing wild and thick, gently lifting up some leaves to see if I could catch a glimpse of a fairy, or a gnome, or an elf, or even a goblin. I was still terribly unhappy and secretly I was hoping that there would be some place where I could go to escape the realities of life in a conservative rural community.
I never did see any magical creatures. But what I initially feared so much, the ruggedness of the farm, the trees, bushes, marshes, and river became my escape and I would wander around forever on weekends and after school, and disappear into my head. I still have dreams where I am walking around on the farm. They are very vivid, and I wake up from them thinking that it is all still there.
As for porridge, it is still not my favorite meal, but I sometimes have it in a flurry of nostalgia whenever I go home, sans sprinkles.
(The pictures here are not of porridge as I know it, but Thai rice porridge, which I curiously enough have grown quite fond of. I have it once a week at a stand on my way to school. The consistency is quite similar and even the taste is somewhat reminiscent of what I had as a child, if you leave out all the condiments.)