18 December 2011

The Orange Tree by T.O. Giwa

The smell of rotten oranges brings bad tidings.

So when I breathed in the aroma of oranges trampled on the ground, I knew then, what was to come. The hairs on the back of my neck whispered stories of nights filled with carnage. I stood by the window, shivering in the breeze as dusk slithered into the room. I called my sons into the hut. Ismael, the oldest, was teaching Luka how to roll a tire on the back of the slippery hill that surrounded the village. Luka was impatient, muttering under his breath, biting his lips just the way his father did. His brother patiently repeated his instructions softly as the evening wind carried their voice through the mist of the gathering dusk.

Nostalgia came to stand by me, wrapped her warm hands around my neck, and I leaned against this familiar friend. I willed myself to the world of afternoons spent laughing, eating roasted corn, and drinking cool orange nectar. The war that took their father came swiftly, leaving our joy hanging naked and dead in the morning light. Life after him was impossible but here I am, the mother of two growing boys.

The thought of the orange tree brought me to the present, as I remembered the troubles lingering the wind. My lips muttered a prayer to the Gods to hold the inevitable away from us. I prayed for the lives of the villagers, and for the harvests of their fields. I prayed for the cattlemen and their herds, for the mothers and their daughters, may their lives be protected. I prayed for grace and a little more time to enjoy the warm fragrance of the orange tree. I asked for time to teach Luka some patience because he will need it. My lips moved faster, a chill spreading itself through my body, as I asked feverishly for days and months to show Ismael how to make hard choices. The more I prayed the faster the visions came. Corpses filled the streets, stacked on top of each other like firewood left in the rain for far too long, blood dripping and mingling. I saw eyes gouged out of their homes, and flung towards the west, forever judging the world. Limbs bent forcefully in awkward and unnatural poses facing the east in prayer.

I hurried outside and called Luka and Ismael to come home.

“Mama, we are starving,” Luka yelled.

They ran to me with all the exuberance of their youth, surrounding my world with their innocent love, and I was no longer afraid. I knew now why women continue to challenge death to a dance and a duel. Is it not to gobble up these moments of joy?

I drew them to me on the mat as they ate their evening meal.

“Mama, tell us the story,” Ishmael asked.

“Yes, mama, tell is the story of the orange tree,” Luka followed.

The wind shifted as I began the familiar story:

“The orange tree came to our village when the first cattle people arrived. Before they came, we were farmers and artisans. The men went to the farm and the women carved jewels. The strangers came just before dawn right before the cock sang the farmers out of their beds.”

The room was quiet. My voice and the smell of the oranges moved and breathed, casting shadows on the walls.

“The messenger rode in on the greatest cow we had seen around these parts, knocking the ground and rooting out plants on the way, as if the devil was trying to break free under the earth. The horse took his master to the village Chief, as soon as he got to the Chief, word was passed around to all the elders Your great-grandfather was one of them; he went to help the chief break this new riddle into morsels that the town could swallow better.”

“Life is full of riddles, my sons, but the answers are not often given to us. We must be brave enough to find the answers ourselves. That is the way to the truth.” I told them as I held their hands in my lap, cradling their heads.

The elders were divided after they had heard the reason for the stranger’s visit. Your great-grandfather was with the group that spoke for the visitors. They asked for the council to allow the herdsmen to use the outer fields to raise their cattle, provided they agreed to live among us in peace. “We must not allow the gods to make a fool of us; this is the way of Man,” your great grandfather said. “The earth belongs to no one. She is a dangerous lover. She writhes and moans in your arms one moment, and spits in your eye the next. The more we try to keep her captive, the more she seeks other men to defile her. That is the way of woman. That is the way of the earth.”

The messenger gave the tree to him in gratitude. “This tree will bless you,” the messenger said. “It will bring peace to your village and warn you when troubles come. As long as the tree stands, your daughters will bear children, your sons will never be lazy and your elders will always be wise.” The wars came soon after that and the tree did her job, shedding her small moons in warning and we tried to listen.

The night slipped away into dreams but the morning brought the thickening of the rot. The smell grew and grew, demanding answers. I got up and knew that the diamond must fall into the sea.

Trouble came with the full force of my foreboding. A soldier rode into the village on the back of a huge horse several days later. He went straight to the Chief’s compound. The news spread dread through the village like indigo staining a white sheet. He came to warn us of the war. He told of villages pillaged and burnt to the ground. He told us about the brave warriors of Kimpacha, he told us how they wept as the marauders stole the pearls of their mothers and daughters. He spoke of markets razed to the ground, and how once-precious goods floated in the air as ash.

After he was done, I got up to speak. A loud murmur went through the growing crowds. I knew what they thought but I was not afraid.

I heard an elder say “If only her husband was still alive, he would put her in her place.”

“She is always the first to speak,” another one called out. “She never learns with her fake prophecies.”

I was determined to speak and their noise could not stop me. I had learned long ago that only the sacrifice knows the cost of standing alone at the altar. So I sang a song and they all became silent, the dust from horses hoofs floating in the afternoon air.

I sang of flowers blooming in all the gardens of the village, of great big harvests and the naming ceremonies of twins. I spoke of our sons becoming warriors to rival the fierce ones of Kimpacha, of oranges forever blooming like harvests of small suns and of enchanting virgins with the clearest pearls safely guarded in the folds of their thighs. I told them how the Gods had favoured us all these years and I told them that they would continue to do so.

I saw their eyes welling up with tears of grief, unbelieving but yet hopeful. I called to the men, and asked them to get ready, to pack clothes and tidy the yards. I asked the women to pack food for a long journey to safety.

As I watched them leave, I saw the days to come in flashes like the pages of a fast flipped through book. I saw the marauders come into the village from the direction of Kimpacha. I saw some of them on horses and some on foot. I saw myself hiding in the latrine of the chief’s compound and I saw them leave after they had taken all they could, leaving behind open doorways and empty fields. I saw many men travelling, tired, and covered by the red mud of our land, dragging their belongings like a terrible burden. Some packed light but others were weighted down by all of life’s trials. I saw my sons growing into men without my guidance and my heart filled with sorrow.

But one day was hidden from me. The war started and ended with me wrapped in everyday solitude, but this day unravelled the cocoon I had built for myself.

I had gone out to prune the tree because her branches were hanging low, saluting the earth, in time for the harvest. I woke up that morning and walked from the Chief’s compound to my own house. I sang to myself as I swallowed whole the beauty of the rising sun. I set out very early, to give me enough time to finish my work and go back to the Chief’s compound to hide before the marauders made their way into the inner parts of the village.

I saw him too late. He was about a foot from me, sitting under the tree. My legs stopped of their own accord. Fear gripped my hands and limbs. I felt the sweat gather under my lips.

For a moment I thought he was sleeping, mistaking the buzz of the bees nearby for his snore. A second later, I was completely surrounded by a dozen boys, holding knives and machetes that glistened with the reflection of the morning sun. I knew the ways of machetes; I had my own in my sack, the outline of which rubbed against my side; its cold sharpness reassured me. I greeted them in our village language and none of them answered.

“Hello!” I repeated in English, hoping one of them had been to school. I noticed a flicker of recognition in a couple of their faces and I smiled lightly at that. The language of the strangers was still the only thing that connected us even after all these years.

“What are you doing here, you foolish woman?” one of them asked. His voice sounded thin but he looked sure of his skills with the machete as I was with mine. I turned to him, smiling, hiding my fear deep inside my stomach, and allowed a little motherly care to seep into my face and voice.

The short dark boy to my left started to fidget, distracting the tall thin one. He turned to the fidgeting boy and they exchanged fast words, furiously arguing in a foreign language. The leader gestured angrily to me with his machete and the fear returned with full force, attacking my stomach with bile and terror.

I will die today, I thought to myself. Who will welcome my sons? Who will be their mother? Who will dance the day they take wives? Who will show them the joys of life?

I will die today!

I did not want to die.

“Speak, woman,” the boy yelled out to me. He moved closer to me as I willed my body to stay still. He moved closer, enough for me to see the red little dots in his eyes. I was terrified.

Suddenly, the short one yelled at him. “Kill her!”

I shuddered in horror and waited, feeling my blood rushing to my ears.

I was about to slip my hands behind my back, hoping to get a strike in before he was able to cut me. At that moment, the orange tree shook with the force of a thousand windstorms and she wept her golden orbs all over the ground smashing all that stood in her way. A song leapt from my heart to my tongue as if it was a lion, crouching deep, waiting for the right moment to leap. I sang my sorrow to them. I sang my fear. I sang of my sons and the warriors they would become. I sang of the village chief and his wisdom. I told them of the beauty of his wives. I told them of the antics of the schoolteacher, who had travelled all the way from the city to teach our boys.

The leader stood spellbound as the tip of his machete touched the ground. They all listened to the gentle tones of my voice as the oranges opened to the light of the morning sun. From the corner of my eye, I saw the rest of the boys move closer to me and they all sat on the ground, listening. Finally I sang the history of the village. I took them along with me to afternoons spent sitting in the great shade of the orange tree, laughing at the village barber’s jokes, sipping the nectar of oranges, and eating yams roasted with honey. I told them of evenings spent listening to stories of warriors and jesters, and virgins and their suitors.

And they wept.

The Orange Tree was written by T.O. Giwa.

Copyright © T.O. Giwa 2011.

T.O. Giwa grew up in Nigeria and Minneapolis, the third daughter of Nigerian parents. She has lived and worked in California and Geneva, and now lives in Uganda, working as a Health Economist. She also writes poetry and political commentary.


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