Ola Mae’s Figs

We lived in a one bedroom flat nestled in the rafters of a three-car garage behind a boxy duplex near the university. We could catch a bus at Hildebrand or San Pedro to take us most of the places we needed to go, though the grocery and the laundry and the original Taco Cabana were all within walking distance. Even in my early twenties the furthest I wanted to carry groceries or a duffle of laundry was about a quarter mile. Four to six blocks.

Bus trips were mostly to church or job hunting. Church was St. Mark’s Episcopal, Downtown—a hundred and fifty year old stone structure where Robert E. Lee had sat on the vestry back before he chose Virginia over the Republic—back in the waning days of the Mexican War when the future Confederate officer corps made their bones manifesting the Republic’s Destiny. Job hunting was code for wandering around downtown San Antonio, ducking in some matinee. I don’t think I ever told my wife that.

Legend had it the convoluted arteries radiating outward from the old Mission district followed the meanderings of an inebriated rancher making his way back from the saloons of the frontier town cobbled together around the old Spanish Misión San Antonio de Valero, desacralized, then used as barracks for the Mexican Army’s Alamo de Parras cavalry company.

Who cares if it’s true? It’s a fun story. Streets Laid Out by a Drunk is a fairly common urban legend used to explain the vagaries of civil engineers.

A fig tree grew between the garage and the duplex, its twisted, gnarly limbs pirouetting toward the sunlight. It was old enough to arc up over the driveway, though none of its boughs were thick. The fig’s wood is soft, weak. It tends to grow counter to its own interests—limbs shooting off at odd angles that weaken the secondary branches and yield poor fruit.

Lucky for the fig humans have been pruning them for over 11,000 years.

There is a Neolithic site on the West Bank of the Jordan, a couple miles north of where Jericho has guarded palm-shaded springs since the dawn of History. The site is older than Jericho. It is called Gilgal I. In the excavation of a late Stone Age house archeologists found evidence of several genetically distinct, sterile hybrid figs. The implication is people developed strands of figs with high yields of infertile fruit. These strands could only propagate through grafting. The culture predates metallurgy; they used stone tools to prune. There are enough varieties to suggest the cultivation was deliberate. This was a thousand years before domestication of wheat or rye.

The tell at Gilgal I has traditionally been associated with the Hebrew occupation of Canaan. The story is recounted in Joshua chapter five. It’s one of the funniest stories in the Hebrew Scriptures, though I’ve never heard anyone give a homily or preach a sermon on the text.

It does show up, in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, 4th Sunday of Lent. It’s a severely truncated version that misses the whole joke of the story. They leave out the best parts:

As the somehow ethnically-related “tribes” of Hebrew nomads moved into the hills of Canaan, so the story goes, they had been camping for forty years out in the Sinai. Popular misconception has them wandering all over hell’s half acre, but the text has them camped in two or three sites throughout much of that period. The salient point is they had not held bris in over a generation.

Since they wanted to be ritually pure when they moved in and took the homes and property of the current inhabitants they held one big bris, occupying the mohalim for hours. They threw several hundred thousand foreskins into a big pile.

This is where the folk etymology takes over. There are several places in Hebrew Scriptures called gilgal. The root gll carries connotations of circle, round, or roll. So roundish mounds acquired this label.

When the writer of this story was telling about his people coming into the land and conquering it he crafted a story about re-instituting the lost rite of circumcision, equating it with moral superiority. “This day I have rolled away (gilgal) the reproach from you!” the Deity tells Joshua, punning on rolling back the foreskin and the otherwise inexplicable round mound dominating the landscape.

That place. That’s where gardeners first cultivated that luscious pink pulp that has been blessing us with vitamins and fiber for 5000 years longer than Bishop Usher thought the whole Universe had existed. Perhaps it was the fig and not the apple—which is a fairly late addition to the story—that was the Tree of Knowledge. The Knowledge of Agriculture. The Tree of Life, that taught human beings we could control our food sources and not live at the whims of hunting and gathering.

Whichever tree it was, it was there, already cultivated in that Eden when the man of spit & dirt and his rib-cloned bookend found it necessary to sew together leaves to hide their genitals.

It was there 11,000 years later, in San Antonio, squeezed in a sleepy neighborhood off campus where my newlywed bride and I lived poor as church mice and irrationally in love.

It was Anna who told me of the tree, recognized what it was, delightedly brought some sweet specimens upstairs to our flat and persuaded me to try this strange fruit I had never previously eaten. I sunk my teeth into its fat, round bottom. The skin surrendered with a soft give. Sweet nectar exploded in my mouth, trickled down my chin, moistened my beard.

Only the first taste is free.

Anna made it clear, in the way wives have of communicating their fondest wishes without ever using actual words—or at least the words which mean the thing they want to communicate—how delighted figgy gifts would make her. I made a note. I kept my eye on those plumpening orbs of purple-green perfection. There was an art. There was a skill.

A man will do a lot for that succulent fruit—gently splitting it open, revealing the pink within, the darker flesh ringing the innermost cavity dissolving from puce to red to pink, the nectar warm and sweet past all limits of sensual perception—he will endure toil & sweat and thistle & thorn to achieve that object of his desire. (It’s a metaphor. Go with me, here.)

Two competitors raced me to harvest the luscious fruit.

Figs are favorites of our avian friends. I rarely caught them in the act, but stragglers from migratory movements or even small flocks of birds found our figs as tempting as Hawwa, mistress of Eden, did lo those many pages ago.

The birds cared not a fig for how ripe the fruit was. They ruined them before I would ever consider picking them. Nor were they content to pick one fruit and finish it. No. They were wont to sample every point where blossom had given way to the soft belly of luscious flavor squeezed beneath livid purple skin.

But a more tenacious rival for the fruit than the birds was our landlady, Miss Ola Mae. Ola Mae was old school Texan. She had inherited her attitude from the 19th Century and had never really reconciled herself to Lyndon Baines signing that Civil Rights Act. Nor Juneteenth. Nor even the Annexation of ’45.

Ola Mae was from San Antonio but lived with her husband—whom I never met—in Houston, which is a totally different culture. Houston in the early 80s was all steel and mirrors springing out of the east Texas bayous through a thick oil-money mulch. For a time it had the largest gay community per capita in the United States. And a national headquarters for one of the many splintered factions of the Ku Klux Klan.

Before I married Anna, when she was still in Virginia, I rented the flat from Ola Mae’s aged mother, a bony, gingham-clad woman with a shrunken-apple countenance. She lived in San Antonio, and managed her daughter’s properties. We never met Ola Mae before moving into the unit.

When we did she nursed an instant and intense dislike for Anna.

She liked me, though, which was odd. Because between Anna and myself I’m definitely the more obnoxious one. Ola Mae projected a matriarchal attitude: the stereotypical Southern matron. A real Rosa Coldfield. Ola Mae thought I was too young to be married. She was right, but it was none of her business.

Miss Ola Mae acted like the figs belonged to her. Technically, they did, but driving in from Houston to harvest them when I was in class and Anna was at work felt … underhanded. She never said a word about it, but sometimes I saw her looking at me, then glancing quizzically at the fig tree.

“I swear,” she’d sigh, “If this darned tree isn’t going to put out any more fruit than that I ought to have it cut out of here.”

“Give it another year,” I’d say.

And she glared at me. As if she knew I was plucking the fruit.

About Mark Matzeder

By education a filmmaker, by trade an electrician, by avocation a writer and sometime scholar. Occasionally I wring an essay out of some observation I have made or experience I've had and share them here. Sometimes I'll share short fiction. Sometimes a poem. But mostly it's just my spin on this strange trip.
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