What the Tree Saw: by Imade Iyamu

Photo credit: Andy Armstrong via Flickr

Water was a good thing. I knew that from the first day I was born in that seedy bush on the outskirts of town, on that dry harmattan morning. It was the day a young man with an uncombed afro, and a slim knapsack slung around his shoulder, bumped into a girl down the pathway near the bush.

‘Excuse me.’ The startled lady said.

‘Oh hi,’ the man said, grinning, ‘so sorry about that. I didn’t see you there.’ Even though he had been staring right at her before they collided.

‘It’s okay, thank you.’ The girl said. She smiled, looking hard at him.

‘You stay around here?’

‘Not really, but I come around often. Do you?’

‘Me? I’ve lived here in Obudu all my life and I’ll still live here when I’m old!’

‘Really? Most people don’t think much of Obudu,’ she said staring ahead to the large expanse of water before them. ‘Or of this canal. All it does is stink and smell all day.’

His eyes lit up; he was looking in her direction but the intensity of his gaze suggested he was looking at something that only he could see. ‘I love Obudu and the canal, and everything around it. It’s not perfect but it is mine and that is more than enough reason for me.’ He reached into his knapsack and brought me out.

‘Look at this seed,’ he said. ‘It’s the seed of the bougainvillea tree. It looks like nothing but care for it, give it some years and it’ll grow bigger than the greatest tree in this life. Obudu is just like that.’

The girl looked deeply at him, then took me from him, and buried me in the ground, only stopping to look up at the surprised young man above her. ‘I’d like to see that. A few years ehn?’ she said. And then she added as an afterthought, ‘my name is Eloho.’

He stared open-mouthedly at her for so long that I thought he hadn’t heard her, until he said, ‘Deoye.’

Almost immediately, the sky opened and a heavy downfall of water splattered down in jumping ropes of silver. It was at once so maleficent yet so auspicious that I didn’t know whether to be happy or scared. The two hid under a tree in the bush, their bodies pressed against each other.

‘Damn it, where did this one come from? I can swear the sun was shining just now.’

‘It’s harmattan, that’s how it is.’ She sighed, and looked at the shallow grave she had buried me in moments earlier. ‘Will the seed be fine?’

‘Yeah, yeah,’ he smiled at her, ‘the water is good for it.’

He was lanky and awkward, tripping over his words. But she smiled and nudged him on like she didn’t notice, or like she thought that the earlier bump was really accidental. I saw the way they looked at each other- wide-eyed and breathless in the rain- and I knew I was not the only thing that had been born.

***

Time passed, and the ones who set me on earth did not forget me. I learnt from them that water is also a bad thing. They came often, together, to sprinkle me with water and marvel at my roots. They said they were there to look after me. But their eyes were thoroughly lost in each others, and the way they had looked at each other on that first day only magnified over time. Deoye grew taller and fleshier every time I saw him, till he was almost unrecognizable from the scruffy young man I first knew. How was it possible for these people to grow so much in almost no time at all? It only felt like a few weeks to me.

‘Can you believe it?’ he said, holding her hands, ‘Three years, and the tree is already so big? Just look at that bark.’ He rubbed his hands over the shaft of my body.

‘And the leaves are so green and full.’ She plucked my leaves and watched as they turned yellowy-green as they left me. I can’t say it felt good to be poked and prodded like this.

He held her in a near-embrace, and ran his thumb on her cheek, as they gazed into each others’ eyes with that look again. ‘Don’t worry Elo, when we’re older, we’ll build a house here next to this tree and we’ll have a baby girl. And we’ll name her Johari, and she’ll be as beautiful as her mother. And we’ll live and love and grow old together here.’

It was strange. They were out there in the open, with people passing by them and a weedy bush around them. But they looked at each other like they were the only two people in the world. I didn’t know what was behind those eyes or what made them so infinitely, ineffably happy. But it made me believe in Deoye’s promise.

Years later when they cleared the bushes and built a tall house around me, I would have to keep reminding myself of that promise. I would tell myself that one day, it would all be fine, just like Deoye said. In those days, darkness hung around us like a thick cloud before the rain. I couldn’t place my finger on it, but I just knew something was missing. They were together finally in the house they’d always dreamt of. But they acted like they were carrying a shared weight that was threatening to break them. In those days, unfamiliar people would walk in uninvited, calling Deoye ‘our son’ and Eloho ‘witch’. I didn’t know what these words meant, but even I could see something was wrong. On the worst of these days, a group of the unfamiliar people came one morning, pointing fingers and used a different word: ‘barren’. It was like magic how that word turned Eloho’s eyes weak-red the moment it was said. When they left, plenty water and snot left her eyes and nose in a throaty shrill.

‘Don’t cry my baby,’ he said, wiping the water as it dripped down her cheeks. He held her head in his chest.

‘Don’t cry. One day we will have our own child. And even if we don’t I will never leave you, or stop loving you. You are mine. So don’t cry.’

At these words the water from her eyes slowed till it reached a halt. That was when I learnt that the water pouring violently the sky was good but water leaving the eyes of a person was a bad thing. This confused me, but it frightened me even more.

I grew happier as the dark days lifted and the air felt easier to breathe. Eloho’s tummy blew up till it was twice her size, and nobody saw anything wrong or strange about this. In fact, everyone around held her up like an egg, no one more so than Deoye. Eloho basked in the attention, and I wondered if it was healthy, or if some day her tummy would grow and grow till her insides exploded. But they were happy. And if they were happy, so was I. It was then I learnt that water can break.

It was an otherwise uneventful morning when Deoye burst out of his house carrying a blown-up Eloho with her torso wet, shouting, ‘Somebody help me! Her water has broken! Somebody help us take her to the hospital!’ Had the thing swelling up in Eloho’s tummy all this time been only water? How disappointing. Not long afterwards, Eloho arrived, her tummy much flatter now, with a smaller person in her arms.

Maybe it was because he was much smaller than both of them, but Deoye and Eloho doted on that small person like he was the only one in the world. They fed him, bathed him, carried him everywhere so he didn’t have to walk like them. They made loud, slow, exaggerated cooing sounds whenever they spoke to him. It irritated me. Until then, I never noticed that I was little more than a gaudy background decoration to them. They would never bother treating me so lovingly and particularly like that. And this new small person who did nothing but sleep and eat and cry all day could just come from nowhere and emerge as the apple of their eyes. It all threatened to make me bitter until one night they were all outside, and the small person reached out its miniature arms to grab at me. Eloho drew him back.

‘Ayy, stop there Nosa,’ Deoye said to him, ‘that bark is rough. And that tree isn’t your mate o, he has been in this family longer than you. Call him Brother or Uncle.’

Eloho chuckled. ‘More like Grandpa.’

The small person still looked at me, intently. And immediately I saw in its eyes, that look I always saw in Eloho and Deoye. That look they shared that had intensified over time was no longer just limited to themselves; they looked at that small person like that too. I wasn’t sure how, but I knew that the small person had to be from them or related to them, somehow. A new warmth sheathed me like a second skin. I had never much understood human beings with their pointless, long-winding speeches and movements or envied their short lives. But in that moment, I wished I could be human even if only for a day so I could understand what heated emotions could birth such a look. But with all that came next, that was the last time I ever wished to be human.

***

In one swoop, I learnt that water means death. That was the hardest lesson I learnt in my life, mostly because I couldn’t have predicted it. Deoye and Eloho spent their days together while Nosa spent his days with me. He was fascinated by my bark and I was fascinated by the curious strength laden in his eyes. As he grew taller, so did his fascination with me. Nosa grew so fast. It felt only like a day to me and he was already more than half Eloho and Deoye’s height.

‘My darling what’s wrong? Why are you sad?’ Eloho asked. This was routine for them. Eloho would mark Nosa’s height against mine regularly and he would sulk.

‘Mummy, when will I be tall like the tree is tall?’

Eloho laughed out loud and patted him. ‘You’re still small, my darling. You’ll be taller and bigger when you are the tree’s age. You just wait ehn.’

He grimaced. ‘But I’ll never be the same age as the tree! No matter how old I get, it’s always a little older!’ Eloho laughed and patted him again, with that look in her eyes.

Over time Nosa found a way of getting taller: by climbing me. Night and day, he’d reach up and makes his way up my stems, holding on to my branches along the way. He did this mostly in secret and one day when he tried showing off to Deoye and Eloho, Eloho was aghast.

‘Jesus! My friend will you get down this instant!’ she screamed. ‘What exactly do you think you are doing?! I said get down here now! This boy wants to kill me!’

Deoye, though, had a smirk nestled in the corner of his mouth, as though he took a kind of guilty pleasure in all this. ‘Let the boy have his fun, Elo,’ he said, ‘How do you expect him to be a man if his nagging mother is always caging him? It’s really harmless anyway, the tree’s branches are sturdy enough to break his fall and good for support.’

Eloho looked genuinely confused. ‘Maybe you are raising a man that I didn’t know about. Me, I’m raising my son. I don’t care how strong the tree is! This is my only child!’

Deoye shrugged. ‘Boys will be boys.’

It seemed Deoye’s blasé response was all the encouragement Nosa needed. His climbing increased in frequency and in skill. His legs became faster and his limbs, more nimble, and even though Eloho shouted him down whenever she saw him, she couldn’t hide that glint of pride in her eyes. I wondered why everyone was so quick to pat his head for his improved climbing. He was climbing the same place all the time, so of course he could only get better. Conversely, no one ever came to pat me for supporting a weight that only grew heavier every day. Or praise me for keeping my cool no matter how many times his grubby toes stubbed carelessly at me.

It was on one of such days when Nosa was climbing me yet again, his toenails clawing at me, that it happened. It happened so quickly, so inexplicably, that I can’t really say it happened at all. Between two events there is always the cause and the result, some link you can trace it back to that explains it all. There was no cause for this one. In one moment, Nosa was grabbing onto my branches deftly like he always had, halfway atop me. And in the next he was on the hard ground; face down, a pool of thick-red water forming around his cracked head. There had been no warning, no cause, no reason.

I looked at him, willing him to stand up and wipe that smeary water from his head and try again to climb up me. But he lay there, motionless as the earth beneath him.

Eloho was the first to see him. She screamed and ran and rolled over the ground with Nosa in her hand. I had seen water from a person’s eyes before, but it was never like this. Deoye rushed outside too and shouted something like ‘hospital’ but Eloho stopped crying, looked him in the eyes and said quietly, ‘He’s dead.’ I knew what death was- an absence of life. I could not fathom it so I thought of it only in its relation to something else I already understood: life. But when I heard those words- ‘He’s dead’- I realised that death was painful to me because I could never conceptualize it, could never know it or understand what it was like to be in a state of statelessness. And that not-knowing made it all the more unbearable.

She lifted one of Nosa’s arms and let it go. It dropped lifelessly, and she screamed in writhing pain. I looked at Nosa’s eyes and he no longer had that look, or that infinite curiosity or zest for life. His eyes were empty and blank, and I wept with Eloho.

***

It’s hard for me to describe those next few years. In the dark days, there had been a cold sadness in the air but Deoye and Eloho had borne it together. This time they carried their burdens on their own, never speaking much unless it was something related to Nosa, carefully planning their activities so they would never bump into each other during the day. I learnt two things in that time. One, that I would never understand people. I’d convinced myself that I was one of them- family- and that with all my learning, I could really come to be like them. I knew better after those years. There were soft things about their lives like the look in a young couple’s eyes or the tiny fingers of a small person, but there were also hard, messy things that soiled their lives, and were inseparable from them. Two, I learnt that water means disrespect.

Eloho had taken to waking up extra early to leave the house before Deoye did, so they would not have to see each other. She had been doing this for a while now since Nosa fell from me. But on that day, Deoye appeared and stopped her on her way out.

‘We need to talk.’

‘Work.’ She said curtly, turning to leave. He held her swiftly by the hem at her waist, obviously stronger than her.

‘I don’t care about your work,’ he said. ‘We are falling apart and we need to talk about it.’

‘There is nothing to say,’ she was looking everywhere but in his eyes. Eloho had been permanently withdrawn since that day, her expressions vacant and her lips unsmiling.

‘How can you say that? When last did we talk? I mean really talk? When last did we make love? When last did we eat together? We are both grieving Elo, why must you shut me out?’

He was all fired up, but she looked empty and unaffected. ‘I don’t have anything to say.’

‘Elo, I know how you feel,’ he said, searching her eyes desperately, ‘but we can’t keep living like this. I can’t just lose you like that too; you’re the only thing of mine left. I love you. Don’t worry, we will have another and we’ll-’

‘You can never know how I feel!’ She thundered suddenly. ‘What do you know? How can you know? Do you see me now? All I have is a man forcing himself to love me, and a womb full of fibroids. I have nothing left to live for! You want me to move on and pop out more children to replace him like it’s nothing? It was always just nothing to you!’

‘How can you say you have nothing to live for?’ He asked wistfully, as though he was talking to himself. ‘You’re all I live for.’ And when she didn’t reply him he asked, ‘You blame me for Nosa, don’t you?’

‘No I don’t blame you.’ Something rancorous was rising in her eyes. ‘You pushed him to climb that godforsaken tree every day. Said it was harmless fun, I was just a nagging mother. You baited him, encouraged him. No o, I don’t blame you Deoye, I blame whatever demon entered me to marry a useless, child-killing bastard like you.’ She sucked in her tongue, and threw out a waft of water from her mouth into Deoye’s eye in one burst. Deoye’s eyes closed in reflex and were hot-red when they opened. Before he said anything else, he reached out and slapped her on the face with both palms, more times than I could count. He slapped her till a pale-red water, like the thick-red one that had come from Nosa, flew from her mouth and she fell to the ground.

‘How dare you spit on me, you stupid fool!’ His voice was gruff and hoarse now. ‘I loved you when you were barren, when I had no reason to, and you spit on me? What kind of disrespect is that? I mourned him too!’

She lay on the ground with her mouth open, but said nothing. He looked like he would pounce on her on the ground and resume slapping her, but he didn’t. He walked away inside and she got up, came out with a big, half-zipped bag and drove out. That was the last time I ever saw Eloho.

It was jarring. I had blamed myself for all that happened to Nosa. Maybe if I weren’t so tall, or if my branches weren’t so far apart, or maybe I had shaken him off my body that day without knowing. I saw the way Deoye and Eloho looked at each other after that, and understood why they were so eager to avoid each other. It wasn’t the same look as when they first met: it was something deep and melancholy, longing for a past that they both knew would never be theirs again. I realised then that they would each carry regret over Nosa for the rest of their lives.

Deoye stood beside me outside, drink in one hand and a big, red can in the other. Time had passed but his eyes were still as red as the day he laid his hands on Eloho; drunkenness twinged with sadness. It struck me how cruel a curse life is on human beings, and how the love that gave them so much joy could also cause them so much pain, and I bemoaned it: this turbid ebb and flow of human misery. Surely death was the only way out of this miserable cycle? I wondered what I would have chosen, if I ever had the choice.

Deoye poured a brownish liquid all over me from the bright red can, struck a match and stepped back as I burned in bright, reddish-blue flames. I knew this would kill me, but I did not begrudge him. Compared to him, my pain would be over in an instant. I would sleep and wake up, returning to the waters who birthed me.


Imade Iyamu is a young writer from Nigeria. She is currently a law student at the University of Lagos.

This story was published in collaboration with Writivism. Writivism is a Kampala-based initiative that supports and promotes African Literature, they are also the organisers of East Africa’s leading literary festival. You can follow their work on Twitter: @Writivism.

Related country: Nigeria

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