COMFORT FOODS // Sheep Head — Pravasan Pillay

Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel on Unsplash

Sheep Head

I am 12 years old, looking over the precast-cement fence of my neighbour’s house in Chatsworth, South Africa. I am watching my neighbour. She’s in her late fifties, or early sixties, dressed in her faded, checked one-piece housecoat, and sitting on a low, handmade wooden bench in one corner of her yard. She has just dyed her gray hair black and is wearing a plastic cap on her head. She has a name but I call her Auntie. 

Auntie is tending to a small fire using twigs and branches from her garden as well as logs she has bought for the occasion. She chops the wood with a bush knife. The fire has been going for a while now and has settled into a bed of ashy, red coal. The gentle smoke creeps its way up to the canopy of the mango tree that dominates Auntie’s yard.The tree hangs heavy with fruit. 

Auntie has buried long, flat metal files into the coal to heat up. To the side of her are two large, chipped enamel bowls – one is empty and the other is heaped with sheep trotters and, resting atop the hooves, a sheep’s head. Both the trotters and head are devoid of wool but the skin still has fine hair on it. The files, when they are hot enough, will be used to singe this off.

Once the trotters and head are burnt in this way and washed clean they will be ready to use in a sugar beans curry – or in curried samp and beans. Both dishes, created using parts of the sheep usually discarded, are extremely popular with the adults around me. I have yet to acquire a taste for them. I will later though. 

Auntie has a dish towel over her shoulder, which she uses to hold the scorching irons and to shoo away flies. Though I find the sight of the sheep head — skeletal with its black socket eyes and weird grinning mouth — terrifying, I am spellbound by the process of preparing the trotters and sheep head. It’s like watching an artist paint. 

Auntie does it once a month and each time I smell or see smoke from her yard I sprint to the fence to watch her. Auntie is sardonic by nature and economical with her words. I don’t think she has said more than ten words to me at any one time. Yet, she often encouragingly nods me over to watch her more closely. 

She works the searing irons quickly and efficiently, expertly covering every inch of skin on the hooves and the head until the last bit of hair is gone. The air fills with the smell of burnt hair and smoke.  As each trotter is finished, it’s transferred to the empty bowl and covered with a newspaper. When everything is done, Auntie disappears into her kitchen with the enamel bowls. I too leave the fence and go back to what I was doing.

The next day after school, I hear Auntie shout from her side of the fence, “Indran!” Indran is my home name. Pravasan is my school name. I rush to the fence. 

“Thawa, give your mother,” Auntie says, as she hands me a glass bowl filled to the brim with warm sugar beans and trotters curry. The bowl is covered by a flipped saucer. 

“Thanks, Auntie,” I reply and walk carefully inside our house with her curry. My mother smiles when she sees the bowl. Auntie is known for her tasty trotters curry. My mother dishes a bowl of fish curry, places a saucer on top and instructs me, “Go give, Auntie.” 

I walk equally carefully back to the fence with the fish curry and shout at the top of my voice, “Auntie!”

Pravasan Pillay is a South African writer who now lives in Stockholm, Sweden. He has published two collections of short stories, the co-written Shaggy (2013) and Chatsworth (2018).

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