Venus Alemanji is a Cameroonian writer and software engineer currently based in Austin,
Tx. She studied Computer Science and Creative Writing at Rice University. Multilingual in
spoken word and code, she has always been fascinated by how computers, no matter how
complex, ultimately speak in ones or zeros, binary, and humans, no matter how simple, often
exist in contradictory, ambiguous states. She writes about queerness, lives whose very existence trouble binaries, the loop of love and grief, and renewal. Habanero Peppers is her first published story. You can connect with her on Instagram.
As Antoine’s aunt informs him of his father’s death, his eyes water, tongue sags heavy, sweat pores spill from the thought of habanero peppers. If Antoine knew one thing about his father, it was his disdain for the peppers. He disliked heat in general. A hint of paprika created an awkward chew. Jalapenos, he barely touched. Habaneros and above? Whewww, war. When his mom cooked them, his father was nowhere to be found. This disappearance Antoine saw and applauded as an act of resistance. A resistance sweetened further because although the peppers spun his senses dizzy too, being a child, Antoine could not run away as freely as his father.
After his aunt drops the call, Antoine sits on his bed naked, ashy, in need of heat. His aunt called shortly after he got out of the shower.
Before him lies a floor-length mirror. He examines his face, his father’s really. Mama eh il resemble son pere, he was often told. The eyes and hands observing him were usually tender with wonder. A few times, though, he caught confusing hints of pity and sorrow in them. He’d later find out it was because he was an out-of-wedlock child, the result of an “unholy” union, as such a hollowed, dirtied thing to some Cameroonians. This wasn’t painful so much as astonishing. The hypocrisy of it all. How many of them were even married according to the laws of the Christian world, how many of them had children outside of those marriages, how many of these marriages were skeletons glorified by bored metal?
Mama eh il resemble son pere, from the caterpillar brows, nosy eyes, generous lips, moonlit skin, to the swayed walk that suggested sin: him, his father. Even down to those confused toes, damn it.
Tears finally rain loose. Antoine leaps for that thing pain always makes us seek. Thinking about this childhood admiration for his father, he tries to joke, little me would kill writing my dad’s obituary. Listen, my dad was an anti-pepper activist, ok… His resistance taught me to draw boundaries early… Rest in-
He stops abruptly. The variables of the joke—death, a little boy, albeit him, and his father—remind him he can’t run away from his pain.
A galah flies onto the ledge of Antoine’s window stealing him away, gratefully, from the mirror. The bird used to belong to his neighbor till it escaped. Occasionally it reappears; the subject of many theories in that household. Antoine’s favorite is the explanation of the neighbor’s 12-year-old son—maybe he comes back to say hey I’m good, just checking in, hope there are no hard feelings. The bird has this beautiful rose-colored body, which after its departure, shifts Antoine’s mind to the floor where a skirt of the same color lies.
He had planned to wear it today. Where the color is bold, the silhouette is simple, chic, a savvy advertiser might say. In this piece of thrifted cotton lies a portal to a person Antoine had been wanting to meet—the woman in him.
Lord, his father would be turning in the morgue if he heard this.
When his father caught him at 15 with another boy’s tongue in his mouth, Antoine convulsed, begging the air to swallow him before his father’s wrath could.
After flinging the boy down the stairs, he turned to his son, body shaking, voice steeled, are you the man or the woman? Wow, that question confused Antoine. His father repeated, are you the man or the woman, stepping closer. Man, he instinctively vomited what he thought the weapon before him wanted to hear.
Oh my son, so that’s your source of pride? When my friends ask, I will say, ha at least my son doesn’t get fucked in the ass, he is the one fucking. That’s what you gift your father. You are no man. You are an abomination, not even worthy of my violence. This is how his father left him. Never did they exchange words again.
The fourth toe on each of Antoine’s feet climbs over the third, pushing it down, the way the absent father is said to suppress Black men like him. When memories like these suffocate him, he is grateful for the absence, though.
For many years, the wish that his father would fly back and say hey how are you, just checking in, hope you’re good, like the rose-colored bird, according to the boy, stung him. As he grew, he came to conclude that his early feelings for the man was a mirage in an emotional desert. In truth, their shared hate of peppers was as close as they’d ever get. Even in the idealized version of his childhood, where he was no excuse for his father’s flight, the man still loved vanishing.
This is why big Antoine can not write an obituary for his father. They shared enough time to share a face, not feelings. Silence, not prayer. Politeness, not love.
It has been too long to hate his father either. He is stuck: there are no funeral manuals for ambivalence.
Though Antoine does not believe his parents dignify that stupid phrase “opposites attract,” his mother did love habanero peppers. When Antoine helped his mom in the kitchen, she would sway to her favorites—Ben Decca, Angelique Kidjo, Tracy Chapman, and memory, telling him stories about her mother’s famous pepper soup. It made the other children sweaatt, she emphasized, smiling. But I enjoyed it.
I was always excited to go to the farm to pick the peppers with my mom. On cue, Antoine would crunch his face. She laughed, Tu es commes les autres enfants. It wasn’t so much the picking of peppers; I enjoyed it cause my mom would tell me many stories during our breaks and when we were finished she would always buy me something special.
These peppers, joyous in the kitchen’s imagination, were weapons steps away on the dinner table. When Antoine’s father had crossed too many lines, his mother cooked them to draw hers. And like eucalyptus oil to mosquitoes or garlic to the vampires in her son’s cartoons, they repelled him from the house.
When, on his return home, Antoine sees his mother rubbing habanero peppers on his father’s lifeless clothes, he assumes, then, this bizarre act is one of revenge. He almost smiles because this woman, expected by her world to roll and somersault cause her husband is dead, has some right to seek her own pound of, if not flesh, cloth. Maybe he does too.
She performs this new ritual seated on the floor of her bedroom with a dignified stoicism. Tired of watching her through the crevice of her bedroom window, he enters. She turns around startled, but importantly not startled the way a child caught in a bad act, acts. There is no worry in her eye, no lunge to cajole him into keeping some secret.
I know you're worried, ‘Ntoine, she says. Your dad was evil. I didn’t love him. You’re a man now, I won’t lie to you. But I cared about him. These habanero peppers...Quand tu mange les habanero, tu recontre ce qui passe. Your eyes water, your tongue sizzles, mucus exits your nose. You release. You heal.
Your father never ate these peppers because he didn’t want to release. Control was his only love. Anything that took it away, he ran away from. I don’t know where your father is now. Be it the Jewish man’s hell or our ancestors’ spirit land, he is suffering for his sins. In the absence of his body, we put these habanero peppers on his clothes so he may release. Release all the people whose destinies he ate. So that they too may release all the righteous hate they have for him. Release so that his spirit may someday heal.
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