A Thin Porridge
By Benjamin J. Gohs
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About the Book
When 19-year-old Abeona Browne’s renowned abolitionist father Jon Browne dies in summer of 1860, devastating family secrets are revealed, and her life of privilege and naiveté in Southern Michigan becomes a frantic transatlantic search for answers—and someone she didn’t even know existed.
Still in mourning, Abeona sneaks aboard the ship carrying her father’s attorney Terrence Swifte and his assistant Djimon—a young man with his own secrets—on a quest to Africa to fulfil a dying wish.
Along the journey, Abeona learns of her father’s tragic and terrible past through a collection of letters intended for someone he lost long ago.
Passage to the Dark Continent is fraught with wild beasts, raging storms, illness, and the bounty hunters who know Jon Browne’s diaries are filled with damning secrets which threaten the very anti-slavery movement he helped to build.
Can Abeona overcome antebellum attitudes and triumph over her own fears to right the wrongs in her famous family’s sordid past?
So named for an African proverb, A Thin Porridge is a Homeric tale of second chances, forgiveness, and adventure that whisks readers from the filth of tweendecks, to the treachery of Cameroons Town, across the beauty of Table Bay, and deep into the heart of the fynbos—where Boer miners continue the outlawed scourge of slavery.
Excerpt from A Thin Porridge by Benjamin J. Gohs
Chapter “The Dead and the Dying”
Late in the day the horses had stopped sweating. The beasts would trot no more. And they panted as they slogged hoof by hoof, stirring umber clouds that spoke to the oxidization of their souls.
Abeona had promised herself she would not stop until they crossed over the mountain. But now she couldn’t remember where to find the pass. And she worried over the condition of the old woman and of the riddle that stalked them.
Desta kept dozing on her horse and Poupina would talk to her and shake her awake. But the poor old thing would just crab and paw at the daughter and fall back into unconsciousness.
By and by they found a river spilling down over an ancient rockslide at the base of the mountain. Abeona knew the pass was somewhere close and here is where they made camp.
They built a stone fire ring near a rock pool shaped like an eye. Stone slabs created a natural staircase down to the water’s edge. Mosses or some strange midget grass grew yellow green up the 10-foot sides of the pond all around. Water was clear and delicious with just a hint of mineral.
The horses would not drink there and the girl was forced to dig a shallow pit and fill it by canteen over many trips.
Egg-shaped Ericas the color of lilacs bloomed on their listing stems among needles that reminded Abeona of Douglas fir. The flowers lived everywhere among boxy chunks of table mountain sandstone. She was reminded of the square teeth on the rock formation painted in watercolor back in Janssen. Wondered if this was that place.
Jackal buzzard circled high above them showing its rust and creme belly. Abeona wondered if the bird was looking for mice or a rabbit, or whether it hoped she would die there in that little Eden. Took off her boots and put her aching feet to the campfire and listened to her hungry belly gurgle in protest at the false fullness of her watery meal.
Poupina removed Grimmis’ coat from Desta and made her a bed next to the fire. The old woman refused to drink and she lay there wheezing.
“She going to make it?”
“Very old, mim.”
“Is she sick?”
“To eat. To rest. Eh? She bed, mim. She very old.”
“Soon. We’ll be there soon.”
“The horses must rest or they will die.” Abeona looked into the fire. “And then we shall die.”
“Rest, mim. Yes.”
“What was that last night? Following us. The noise in the bush.”
Poupina scooched closer to the fire. The sun had yet to set but there came a cool breeze off the mountain. “Kan zijn klipspringer of kan zijn wild cats. Eh? Kan zijn Boer? Nee. Nee. Kan zijn … lion. Eh.”
“Lion? I was thinking that myself.”
“When de lion zijn roar, u zijn veilig.”
“Eh. U is uh … safe. Eh?”
“Don’t like them whether they’re noisy or quiet.” Abeona unholstered the pistol and laid it on her lap. She dozed a little and woke at twilight with her companions asleep and the fire at embers. And on the breeze rolled a soft rumble of the thing that had been following.
Abeona kicked Poupina’s feet until she roused. Girl put on her boots and holstered her gun. The women went to the mess of deadfall for more wood and built a great big fire. As the firelight grew, so too did their stalker’s roars.
“U is smart met pistool?” Poupina made her hand into a gun.
“I can shoot. If I have to.”
“Godzijank.” Poupina smiled and clasped her hands over her head. “Godzijank.”
“Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”
The women sat a while before Abeona remembered the leather bag tied to Grimmis’ horse. She went to it and dug around Jon Browne’s journals looking for one of the later ones. One hopefully less concerned with slavery, rape, and murder.
She petted the animal. He seemed better for having rested but kept sniffing at the wind and stepping nervously. Hadn’t hobbled them yet and now with them fidgeting she wasn’t going to try. They would have to obey the thin rope that tethered them to the sun-bleached tree stump.
Along with the diaries inside the bag, the girl found wrapped in canvas a two-pound package of dried meat and hardtack. She took a journal and the victuals and sat next to her sister.
“Food. I’ve found food.”
“Oooh,” Poupina cooed. “Dank u wel.”
“Should we?” Abeona motioned to old Desta.
Poupina shook her head and said, “sleep.”
The girls gnawed jerky and crunched the stale bread-like crackers and Abeona put three-quarters away for the rest of their trip.
“These,” she said with a wad of salty beef in her cheek, “are from my father—our father. Jon Browne.”
“Yes,” Abeona made hand motions for a big beard and hulked her shoulders and made fists and swung them in brutish fashion. Then she patted her chest and rocked an invisible baby. “My Fa-ther. Your fa-ther.”
“Vader Benjamin? Waar mijn vader? Eh?”
Abeona started to shake her head but understood what the girl was asking. She remembered then what Fr. Benjamin had told her about Poupina having been slow. And now she could see it in the girl’s face.
“Waar mijn vader?” Poupina looked around as if she were waiting for someone to appear.
Abeona held up the journal. “I have only his words.”
“U read story, mim?”
“Yes. Would you like me to tell you what they say?”
Poupina ripped off a piece of meat and nodded eagerly though Abeona wasn’t sure the girl understood any of it.
This selection of letters consisted of essays Jon Browne had written for the abolition movement. Poupina listened as Abeona read about human rights and the necessity of equality as outlined in the Declaration of Independence, and of that most basic human need of freedom.
The more Abeona talked, the deeper Poupina’s glaze of attentive ignorance became.
Still, it was all Abeona could do to keep from going mad in that strange place surrounded by hungry growls, thirsty desert, and deaf gods. So she read on into the night to distract herself from the fear setting in her chest, and the tingle of hopelessness which quivered her chin. She read until Poupina slept and then she read some more.
Dim chilly dawn. Abeona woke on her side, curled around the dead fire. Desta was up and nibbling jerky. Old woman nodded and drank from her canteen.
“Good morning.” Abeona searched groggily the dirt for the pistol until she realized she was lying on top of it. She holstered the gun and checked on the horses. Went about twenty paces out to a waist-high bush to piddle and, while she was peeing, she saw the biggest goddamned footprints. They were lion alright. His pugmarks in the sand the size of dinner plates. Girl grunted out the rest of her water and tried to go otherwise but days of dry biscuit and little else had turned her insides to brick.
Looking all about, she pulled up her pants. Listened but there was only the sounds of morning birds and the rustle of wind in the grass. She didn’t want to think of it. But before she could tell herself no she envisioned the great spotted cats which had attacked her. Now there was no Djimon or Mr. Yannick or Azuka to run to.
Abeona went slow but steady back to camp and whispered to the women to get up.
“Lion.” Abeona scraped her boot in the gritty earth. “I saw his footprints. Big lion.”
About the Author
Benjamin J. Gohs
Benjamin J. Gohs is a longtime award-winning news editor whose investigative journalism has included stories of murder, sex-crime, historical discovery, corruption, and clerical misconduct.
Benjamin now divides his time between writing literary thrillers and managing the community newspaper he co-founded in 2009.