A long, long time ago in the Okuleye family it was customary to serve oneself from the soup pot when Mom wasn’t home yet — or when she gave you the go-ahead to do so. Whenever this happened, there was the unspoken rule that you had to limit yourself to one piece of meat, so it always came down to each person picking the biggest piece in turn, and turn, as we’d been brought up meant age.
It so happened that on one of those days, we confirmed the presence of a humongous piece of beef at least 5-6 times larger than anything else in the entire soup pot. This wasn’t one of those times when the person serving himself surreptitiously examined two similar pieces to determine which was bigger — or as we all did on occasion, test the weight using the scooping spoon.
Into Chief’s bowl it went. I got the next largest, and my little brother Uche got the next. What was left was a very little piece, so tiny it would have fit on a teaspoon. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but it was a lot smaller than anything else in the pot.
Halfway into his meal Chief attempted to sample his meat and discovered it was hard to the touch. Yes, there were striations just like the beef his younger brothers had, but it wasn’t beef — or any kind of meat for that matter.
It was a stick.
I still don’t know what it’s called, but it’s usually ground up into a spice and used for cooking. Our mother cooked with it whole, preferring to let the soup absorb only some of its essence.
When we saw his reaction, we knew what it was. Our Uncle M– had fallen victim to it the month before. Very quickly, Uche threw his meat into his mouth and began to chew. The law of the jungle applied at the table when our parents weren’t around to ensure some semblance of civilization and the weakest are always the first to take steps to protect themselves or in this case, their property.
I was three years younger than Chief but we were the same size. The Isoko woman who lived around the corner even called us Ejima everytime we went out wearing the matching clothes our mother seemed to think we should wear.
My elder brother sized me up and I glared back. We had fought several times and were pretty much on par with each other. I was prepared to fight again. Everybody knew meat tasted best if you kept it for last after finishing up your eba, and I was not going to eat mine simply because I didn’t want to fight with my brother over it.
He left the table slowly, returning to the kitchen. I waited nervously, hoping he had not gone to fetch the eba stick, his preferred weapon. Whoever held the eba stick always had the advantage, and I had hidden it several times to make the fights fairer, sometimes even wielding it myself.
He returned with the last piece of meat and all the tension drained away.
“Azuka,” he said when he sat down. “Let’s exchange our meats.”
“You chose first,” I grinned at him.
He grinned back, then we were all laughing.
He never fell for the soup stick again, but I did, and that’s a story for another day.