She fled. He pursued.
She was screaming.
She ran like a rat and he would have exploded with laughter if her threat had been but a little less grave. She was running in the wrong direction yet too terrified of him to see it. He caught up with her deep into the forest where overlapping canopies and cuddling branches blocked sunrays and the ground was damp and rich with worms and insects and pungent-smelling dead things. He flung his leg at her, caught her buttocks squarely in midair, and she flew like a wounded bird, fell face-deep onto the mushy ground. He had an instant to hope that she’d broken her neck. But she rose, wobbling like a drunk, and there was a worm on her face writhing its way into her nose while her previously wide mouth was full of rotting things and mud. He stood in front of her, axe in hand.
“I can’t let you do that to me, you know,” warned he.
“I won’t,” she begged, spitting debris from her mouth, her eyes glistening in the scanty light, wet, distorted. He watched as she attempted to brush off the worm but squished it instead, decorating her upper lip with a smear of whitish gelatinous moustache.
“But you will,” said he. “You are just like your mother. A lot of mouth and no head. If you threaten me like that, I have to be really nasty,” he added and swung the axe before she could protest. The top half of her head flew off like a hat that had been carelessly removed.
“Nobody needs a head that can’t think right,” he told her.
A thin blade of light penetrated the canopies and fell on what was left of her left eye. She was still staring at him although most of her brain had spilled onto the forest floor and mixed with mud. She jerked about for some time, dying slowly, blindly, bleeding unmanageably, like a beheaded chicken.
As she thrashed about, her skirt withdrew upwards and exposed her thighs; young, ripe, untouched, they appealed to him, and he became aware of the frenzied throbbing of his penis. He could sleep with her now and finish what he had begun while she was still warm and kicking, her spilt brain notwithstanding. There was a man who slept with dead women in the village during an old ritual that ensured widows did not take their pent-up sexual cravings into the ground with them. If they did, they would return as ghosts and ghouls and rape men in their sleep. Morris could do that now, although it would not really be the same thing considering that the girl was not yet completely dead. He got hold of her panties and yanked them off. He then stepped into the space between her straddled legs. He was reaching for his penis when a peculiar thought made him freeze: if she died with him inside her, he might get stuck there. And he might then have to spend the rest of his life with a corpse hanging on his penis. Or his semen might bring her back to life whereupon she might exact her revenge by sucking out his energy through his penis until he was all withered and old, a skeleton, yet alive, draped in a revolting, cadaverous skin.
He jumped back from her with a low squeal.
He did not touch her again until she had stopped bleeding and he was certain she was totally gone. He gathered the scattered chunks of her brain and returned them into her skull. He replaced the top of her head too, tied it up neatly with a piece of bush-rope, passing the string below her jaws and around her neck. Finished, he agreed that it was a pretty fine work. He felt good about it. Her face resembled that of a severe clown.
Next, he carried the body to the edge of the forest where there stood an abandoned six-foot tall anthill, beneath which was a deep tunnel dug by the aardvark. He pushed the body inside headfirst. It could, however, enter only up to the knees, and he had to pull it back out and hack off the legs, like a butcher, before returning it in and placing the limbs on either side of it. Once it was hidden, he embarked on covering the hole. He worked up loose soil with the help of the axe for the purpose. It was mid March and the rainy season had just come to an end, the land still moist. Morris had thus a relatively easy task. The aardvark had also made a considerable mound of what it had dug from the anthill. Morris pushed it all into the hole. When he couldn’t get anymore loose soil, he collected debris—leaves, sticks, barks, clods, rocks, even the quills of two porcupines he had once hunted at the hole—and dispersed it over the grave. Finally, he decided to use some branches . . .
And that was when a very odd thing happened to him.
He found a tree with low branches and started hacking at one of them. As he worked, the picture of the girl’s thighs returned to his memory: how ripe and inviting they had been, how he had almost explored the sweet softness between them, thereby becoming the one to pollute the unpolluted, to tame the untamed. She had been unshaved, yet too young and jejune to give shaving a priority. He recalled how he had later chopped off those thighs when they couldn’t fit into the tunnel, how the axe had devoured them, her meat ripped, bones shattered. He had contaminated her then. He had befouled her delicate flesh. The chopping had been analogous to sex, destructive, mandatory, good. It was like cutting this tree. This tree had never been cut. It was young, naive, a virgin, all its branches, roots, intact. He was the first to cut it, to explore its virginity and expose it to unaccustomed pain, to the relentless brutality of life. He was breaking it. He was taking something from it. He was plundering its innocence, its life, its essence. It felt good to do that. It felt sooo . . .
His brain exploded. Like a volcano. An orgasm. Right inside his head. So fierce and savage in manner, so furious and rash, yet so sweet and irresistible that he let go of the axe and clung to the tree with desperation, wanting to scream, to bark, to moan, to say something, yet breathless, weak, his spine ruptured.
He hadn’t even realized he had an erection.
He collapsed under the tree and rested awhile thereafter.
“It seduced me,” he said with amazement. “The tree seduced me.”
And he burst out with laughter at the thought. A hollow, deranged, lonely squeal that tore to the depths of the forest and made leaves curl. A flock of weaver birds nesting in a nearby tree took off. A lizard darted to the safety of dead leaves while its mate ran up a tree as if being chased by fire.
He noticed that he had experienced the orgasm at the exact moment the branch had begun to fall. It must have been the tree, then, for the girl was surely dead. The tree had charmed him with its sex appeal.
“Sex appeal,” he noted, and convulsed harder.
The laughter stirred his bowels and he looked for a place to relieve himself. He chose the grave, thinking it would be an added distraction to any overly curious faces. When he was done, there was a monstrosity there, a guard, so abominable it obviated the need for any further concealment. If the girl somehow awoke from the grave now, that thing would send her back forthwith. The stink was enough to grant her second death.
Still curious about the tree, he began cutting a second branch. He was careful this time. He sought to understand its magic, its power to grant such fevered orgasms. However, somewhere in the process, he became diverted—though how or with what object he knew not—and the only thing he understood thence was that he was dealing with the girl, the little sweet-sixteen, ravishing her, ravaging her ripeness, her mellow, untainted riches, harnessing her adolescence, her femininity, craving her, sinking deep into her . . .
And then there was fire.
He was ablaze.
“The second baptism by fire,” mused he, amused.
He could have lived in the forest and cut the tree his entire life, but he had to go home. He threw the branches over the grave, left.
His children had returned from school and they rushed to him. The four of them, jolly little angels. He picked up the lastborn, tickled her, blew her belly, tossed her up three times, and then put her down. She went on to frolic about, chortling, beside herself with contented joy. The second lastborn tugged at his trouser and begged to be treated in the same way, which he did. The remaining two, ten and twelve, girl and boy, respectively, just stood by and watched with good-natured amusement. He rubbed their heads and flicked their cheeks. He then left them before they could be too close to smell the semen in his trouser. They still didn’t know what it was, but they would know someday—and woe unto him when they remembered.
“Where is your mother?” asked he; but he knew she was in the kitchen and he hurried to wash himself lest she should think he had been with another woman, something he had never done since marrying her. What had happened in the forest, him wanting to have sex with Kiri’s daughter, Gita, was merely an imprudent impulse turned sour, as most such impulses were apt to do. But what an experience it had been! Aha!
“A person needs experience,” his father had been known to say.
“Can I give you some experience?” he’d asked the girl but she had been stupid and threatened to report him to her father, who was his best friend and workmate. He had had no choices but to protect the friendship. It was a good friendship.
He washed also the clothes he had been wearing. When he came back out, he saw that his eldest son, Juma, had taken the axe and was swinging it at the mango tree by the house.
“Hey, put that back!” ordered he, frightened, his voice sharp. “You shouldn’t touch that by yourself; it is too sharp,” he added in a placatory tone. But what he meant was that it was a murderer’s axe. It had spilled the blood of a child they knew. Morris was still unsure whether Gita had cursed him with her last breath to have sex with trees or his discovery of the pleasure of cutting trees was just a serendipitous result of murdering her. Whichever it was, he didn’t want his son following suit.
“How was work?” Achi asked him over dinner.
“Fine,” said he, smiling at her. “And how was it at the market?”
“Fine,” she said, smiling back. “They are looking for Gita,” she added. “They said she came to the forest. Did you see her?”
“Yes. She was looking for her father,” Morris explained. “I told her to go ask Josi.”
“Josi?” asked Achi, frowning. “How is it so?”
Josi was their neighbour. He was also a thief. He stole chicken with a hook and a grain of maize attached to it, catching them like fish. His family was cursed, his elder brother being the one that slept with dead widows. He was a jailbird.
Achi loathed him. He stole her cock once and Morris had to go over and demand that he either paid or got killed for it. He had paid. But he had been shocked by Morris’ reasonableness and he had had to pay ten times the approximate cost. If it had been another family he’d have been dead by now. Most people across the village wanted a piece of Josi, a bloody piece of him for that matter, ripped from him, not cut. However, unbeknownst to them, Morris had intended to kill him that day. He had been fed up with Josi. It was one thing to be a declared thief; it was a different thing altogether to target your immediate neighbours. Only a foolish thief steals from his neighbour. And fools die fast.
“He has a tree he wants us to lumber for him. Kiri went to look at it,” Morris said.
“Then he must know where Gita is!” exclaimed Achi, rash in her conclusion, but who cared? It was best that way.
“He certainly does,” agreed her husband, who was full of secrets.
Around eight-thirty, Kiri came over to inquire concerning his daughter’s whereabouts. Morris directed him to Josi’s home.
By nine o’clock, there was a crazed blood-thirsty mob thronging the thief’s compound. By ten o’clock, he was dead, pounded, shredded, limb from limb, tissue from tissue, his head bashed in like a deflated football. Two dogs were fighting over his liver, another one dragged away his intestines, and a fourth licked his brain and ate whatever broke loose from it. His mother was wailing sick, his wife insane.
Afterwards, bored, there being no one else to murder, the crowd dispersed. It consisted mainly of young men from the village. Morris returned home with his wife by his side. He hadn’t personally touched Josi, though he didn’t feel bad about what he had done to him. The world was ugly and it was not his fault. He had found it so, and so he’d leave it. He thought people like Josi were as important to the society as were presidents and pastors. The world did not need justice or any of those things that were rammed down your throat every now and then. The world needed an enemy, somebody to collectively dislike, hate, revile, jeer at, and fear. Unity, justice, along with attendant virtues, would establish themselves once the enemy was known. The negative emotions were plentiful in the heart and more powerful than the positive ones; consequently, they needed to be expended often, even as the latter were retained. Where people had no adversary, they tended to turn on one another, or, worse, on themselves, which was the commencement of a societal fiasco. But they did not know this, and so they destroyed their adversaries and proclaimed victory. What victory? They were fools.
“If you kill him, how will you know where your daughter is?” Morris had asked Kiri.
“He killed her! I can feel it! He killed her!” Kiri had answered with passion, repeating himself like a dork.
“But don’t you want to find the body?”
“He buried it! I can feel it! He buried it!”
“What if he didn’t—if he just dumped it somewhere?”
“Then there will be a stink! We will find the stink!”
Morris had then watched as his best friend sicked young men to butcher innocent Josi. Kiri’s wife had been there, enraged, vengeful tears in her eyes, sicking her husband. She was a big ugly woman whose buttocks hung like two breasts. If she were Morris’ wife, he’d go mad and most likely die from thinking that she was married to him.
Night settled. A breeze blew. Cold and foul, ferrying the muted cries of the innocent dead. The voices of Josi’s mother and wife could be heard; they mourned like wolves.
While his family slept, Morris worked. He was a carpenter by night, a lumberjack, a charcoal trader, and an occasional hunter by day. He invested six hours of every night in carpentry, going to bed from around two when Achi was dead to the world. He had put up a house for Juma but turned it into a workshop, the child still too young. He was the only carpenter within a three-kilometre radius, which meant that the business was good and he could have made a decent living from it alone. However, he needed to work at night in order to avoid sleeping with his wife.
When he first saw Achi, she’d been one of those girls that made you wonder what they were doing on such a sickening planet as earth. She had been like a flower, a beautiful rose, growing amongst garbage; you could only gawk at her, popeyed and foolish, your breath gone, your lungs squeezing emptily, asking yourself how something like that could come out of something like this, yet unable to touch her, forbidden from her, for you were part of the garbage, you were waste, rotting wretchedly underneath her while she soared skywards undeterred, a blooming rose, and you became paranoid and irate at the world for mocking you like that, and you cursed God in your heart for being such a sadistic comedian as to tease you with a rose while you were dirt, even less than dirt: still, even as you craved for her, there was guilt in your heart, for you were loath to be the one to vitiate her, to introduce her to the corrupting aspect of this monstrosity called life; you wanted her as she was, with her freedom, beauty and purity, yet you wanted her for yourself. It hurt.
She had been such a woman. When she walked past, the whole world would consist only of her. Even Morris himself would cease to exist. It had taken him three years to get her to escort him up to their gate—only up to their gate. The first of those years had dragged by while he thought of something to say to her, even as jealousy jaundiced his mind of an imaginary opponent far much better than him sweeping her off to a faraway land; he would meet her and he’d freeze, speechless as a tree, dumb to the core of his soul, which was an awful thing to occur because the girls in the village regarded such behaviour unworthy of a man, a signification of inherent weakness, for they were too stupid to conceive of their very influence over you.
He married her, gifting her father enough for ten other girls. And he was happy; hell, he was the happiest, proudest man in the world, he was special, especially against his age mates like Kiri, who had married earlier, and whose wife’s mouth resembled the vagina of cow that has just given birth.
But life is a joke. A cruel joke. It is itself a living thing, working to stay alive, to survive and continue, its existence complete with duties and hobbies, its foremost hobby being to tease you with death by always sending you in the wrong direction, its duty to lavish you with pain so as to kill you.
Just when Morris’ head was the biggest in the world, his ego the size of an elephant, life decided to have its primary hobby on him: Josi, his thieving neighbour, got married. He married a pretty woman. Not as pretty as Achi, not even close by a thousand miles, but prettier than most other girls Morris had come across. Pretty enough, as a matter of fact, to make him wonder: “Why would a girl like that agree to marry a thief?”
After days of pondering over this question, he decided that the girl either did not know what Josi did for a living or, if she knew, did not care about it. She was in love with him. Morris wanted to accept the former reason (Josi had been such a man that if you asked him what he did for a living, he’d answer “I just live.”) but he convinced himself that the girl must surely know that Josi was a thief. Anybody who knew Josi knew also that he was a thief. He was built like a thief: tall, slender, long legs, long arms, long face, a suspicious disposition, and disconcertingly piercing eyes that constantly searched his surrounding, missing nothing. Which meant that the girl was in love with a thief and she knew it, which was odd, because there wasn’t enough love in the heart of a thief to inspire a reciprocating love.
With this disturbing conclusion, the matter would have nevertheless rested. But life wasn’t done yet with its hobby—is it ever done, anyway? Around that time, there was a story in the papers about a certain Miss Kenya who had married a politician—the very same politician who had afterwards incited an internecine war that had resulted in over a thousand deaths, with almost a million other Kenyans permanently dislocated from their homes. He had in person supplied the youth with the weapons for the massacre. Now, why would such an outstanding woman agree to marry such a devil? Morris worried.
“Achi, why do you love me?” he asked his wife one night in bed.
“I just love you,” she said.
“Is there no reason?” he pursued.
“What are you talking about? Do I need a reason to love my husband?” she replied and then squeezed tightly against him until his buttocks were on her pubic hair, her nipples pressed on his back, knees folded in his hams, arms around him.
She was happy. He was sad.
It meant that all his efforts were worthless. All the toil he had put in from the very first day he saw her, first in gaining her love and thereafter in making her happy, had gone unappreciated. It meant that he was not special after all. It pained him.
One day, while making love to her, he was struck by a ridiculous idea that it could have been somebody else doing what he was doing and she would not have minded. It could have been a thief or a homicidal politician, or the worst fool on the planet, but, still, she would not have minded. This thought scared him to hell and he rolled away from her, rejecting her for the first time in over ten years.
With time, the fear grew, and all his desire flew out the window. Not just for her, no, for any woman. It couldn’t be love if it depended on your capacity to please; anyone could please anyone if they wanted to. A thief could, or a wicked politician, or a witch. You couldn’t be made to work hard for three years to please a person who didn’t care about virtue. There had to be something more, a substance, a singularity, an eccentricity that couldn’t be found anywhere else on earth, except in you. Something, like a magnet, that drew the two of you—only the two of you—together from wherever you were. And once you met, you both felt the love without either of you having to say a thing, having to please. But there wasn’t.
Thenceforwards, Morris had elected to abstain from sex.
What had happened this evening in the forest with Gita had been a culmination of months of suppressed desire. Life is selfish; if you do not voluntarily obey its designs, it forces you to. It is sadistic. Despite his resolution, Morris had been no exempt from the tyranny of sexual appetencies. He’d attempted masturbation and succeeded twice. On the third occasion, however, he’d pictured himself naked with his penis in his hand, his face a perverted grimace, eyes shut, lips snarled, mind lost, a sad lonely man having sex with himself. A very unsettling picture indeed. To aggravate it, he had imagined God watching him at that very instant, seeing what he was doing and pointing a warning finger at him. He had never tried it again.
But now there were trees.
He went to bed after making two windows and repairing a sofa. His wife would give them out to the owners in the morning.
In the morning, he returned to the forest and found Josi digging up the remains of Gita with a spade. He was bent awkwardly over the grave, his tall wiry form almost curled into a loop. He did not look up when Morris approached. “I know what you did,” he was saying. His voice was clogged with blood and it bubbled when he spoke. “I know what you did and they also will know it. I’m digging her out and I will show them what you did. What you did. What you did! Do you know what you did to me?” he asked and turned around, raising the spade as if ready to strike Morris with it. His face resembled the work of a blacksmith with a nasty case of nerves, all bashed in and deformed, as if with a sledgehammer. His forehead had burst and a white substance was oozing out of it. The crack zigzagged down his face along the ridge of his nose, splitting his jaws and shredding his lips, his teeth sticking out like nails. Moreover, his left eye was twisted and turned inwards, facing the right, while the right one was glaring straight ahead at Morris, sharp and fierce and bloodshot, unblinking, accusing as well. Morris ran from him but not so fast. He was whacked on the head with the spade and fell into the grave. Gita crawled out to allow him space. She was covered all over with grave-worms. She smiled at Morris, her eyes watery, her tongue blackened, her teeth looking like frozen droplets of pus, and said, “You can rape me now, Morris. I am much tastier now. Don’t you think?” But the top of her head had fallen off again and maggots swarmed what was left of her brain. One maggot rolled down and Morris watched it with terror as it began to crawl into his nose. He beat at it but it was too slippery and soft and quick and it had a motive. At the same time, Josi began to pound Morris’ head with the back of the spade in order to fit him into the grave . . .
Achi wakened him. He had been threshing about and groaning like a dying person.
He assembled his tools and left for the forest in a hurry, baffling his wife who was yet to start a fire for his breakfast. He told her he had business with a certain tree before the sun came up. Which really wasn’t a lie, though the first thing in his mind was to inspect the grave to ensure it had not been tampered with; wild animals might have dug up the body during the night. It must be what the dream had meant.
He was startled to meet with Kiri’s mother, Sida, at that hour. She was standing in the middle of the path. From her posture and disposition, she seemed to have been there for a very long time. She was seventy years old and wrinkled as if a large animal had eaten her and spat her out for being a witch. Her grandmother, Kiri’s great grandmother, had been a witch, and was the one that had cast a malevolent spell on Josi’s family. Morris wondered if Sida was a witch as well. Things like witchery ran in families.
“Too early, Sida,” he greeted, giving her a wide berth; but he’d startled her too and she goggled at him, wordless. He did not like her eyes, though; they were startled in a manner suggestive of a peculiar discovery. He imagined that she had come here to cast a spell in order to catch her granddaughter’s true killer. Maybe she had not believed that Josi had done it. Maybe she believed that a petty thief could not be a killer. And so she had cast a diabolical spell that the first person to come along would be the one. And Morris had just done so.
“A guilty conscience needs no accuser,” Morris sighed and went on.
He found the grave intact. No animals had come by it, no footprints. He exhaled deeply, his shoulders dropping, and was surprised by how tense he had been. He climbed the anthill and broke a quarter of it from the top, rolled it carefully onto the grave. The aardvark must have eaten the queen, for all the ants had migrated. Next, he squatted and took a fresh crap beside the previous one, stationing another monstrous guard, as rank and vile as the evilest thing. It was funny how everybody loved good food yet the stomach abused it so.
Done, he went to his tree. “My tree,” mused he, feeling ridiculous, nevertheless happy. He lopped off two branches for two mighty orgasms, resting in between, each time hugging the tree like a lover. He rested awhile afterwards before moving to the side of the forest where Gita had found him the previous day. He had felled some trees there that needed to be turned into logs. Kiri would bring some bulls with him to ferry them home to be made into timber.
Morris worked for five hours nonstop before going back to his girlfriend (girlfriend?). In that duration, the sound of his chainsaw drowned out everything else, yet he never for a single second let go of her (her?) memory. When he felt the need, he took the axe and went to her, to be with her. He ejaculated less and less with each destroyed branch, and it was good. The less the ejaculate, the headier the orgasm. It was a sweet pain, intense and rich, the best thing in life, yet pain could not be absent from it. “The monster loves pain,” mused he, amused. He wondered what Achi would do if she found out that he was cheating on her with a tree. Would she feel pain? Would she be jealous of a tree? Ha-ha!
Over the course of the next week, he annihilated his girlfriend, chopped off all her arms and legs. In the last days of her life, he climbed her, for her last arms were too high for him. When she was no longer beautiful and productive, he used her to burn charcoal.
He was saddened by the loss and he mourned for some time. It had been a good tree. His father used to say that the surest measure of a good thing is how much you wish to destroy it: “If you can’t help destroying it, then it is good. It is requisite. People destroy what is good them.” Which meant that people destroyed themselves, which was an irony, because people thought they were saving themselves when destroying things. Anyway, at first, Morris thought that the tree’s ability to grant orgasms was unique to her; he was soon proven wrong when he discovered that others of different tribes (tribes?) possessed the quality, even better. He’d never been gladder.
He learned that trees gave orgasms freely. When he saw a tree, he thought of sex. And he wanted to cut it down. When a different person was doing the job, he felt jealous. It was a chance for good sex going to waste. He thought the man such an imponderable fool and resented him. He made a deal with Kiri to be the one felling all the trees while he, Kiri, only converted them into transportable logs. Kiri did not mind.
Morris felled so many trees, burned so much charcoal, sawed so many planks of timber that he had a stock like never before in his career. He was unshaken of the Ministry of the Environment, whose officials believed that they could save the world by torturing people almost to death. They did not understand that the relationship between humans and the environment depended on the relationship between humans and one another. No one could save anything in this world by hurting people. The world was people. But that was what they did. They were fools.
Morris had found pleasure in work, a pleasure like no other. And nothing would take it away from him. Some people took pride in their jobs and boasted about it to the world; well, they were lucky they had never met him, or heard of him. He would have told them a different story and they would have shut up in shame and begged to join him. It was ironic that he had had to kill a little girl in order to discover something so potent and supreme yet to which the world was still blind. The irony was insignificant, though, since irony was just one of life’s sadistic hobbies. He was a pioneer. He was a trailblazer. He was the husband of all trees.
One afternoon, when they had taken a break for lunch and settled down under a tree for it, Kiri advanced the issue of his friend’s newfound vigour.
“You are too happy and strong these days,” said he, casual.
“I didn’t know that I was too sad and weak before,” replied Morris. He was crushing a small bone with his teeth while Kiri was peeling a slice of pawpaw and mixing the peels with those of the boiled potatoes he had eaten. The mixture was repulsive. The pawpaw was overripe and looked like yellow diarrhoea. The food had been brought by Abela, Kiri’s wife, who was a better cook than Achi. Achi was all beauty and bad food. Morris did not hate her for it, though. No one could be too thin or too fat. When something was added, another was taken away, and vice versa. It was how it worked. Nature was fair.
“That’s not what I meant,” Kiri said.
“It is what you said, or didn’t say,” Morris told him.
“The thing is, while you’re too happy and strong your wife seems too sad and lonely.”
“How do you know that?” Morris blared, startling Kiri, who then smeared the pawpaw all over his lips, nose, moustache, and cheek. Morris sat upright, his face rigid.
“Hey!” cried Kiri in complaint. “Don’t do that! Don’t shout!” He was speaking with the yellow diarrhoea pawpaw in his mouth so that his tongue looked like an enormous red maggot writhing in it. “It is apparent,” he went on after calming down. “A sad lonely woman is just as noticeable as a happy strong man.”
“Why do you look at my wife with the intention of judging her like that, huh? Why do you examine how lonely she feels—do you want her?”
“That’s not what I meant,” Kiri reasoned. He was wiping the pawpaw from his face with his shirt.
“You are perverting everything I say,” he added.
“I’m not perverting anything! I never speak of your wife like that. Because, if I did, I’d tell you to squeeze her breasts till they shrink to ordinary size—those nasty whopping tanks of baby-milk containers!”
Kiri got up so fast Morris readied for attack. But he only took his axe and walked away with it towards the belly of the forest.
“You eat my wife’s food and insult her like that!” he shouted once over his shoulder, his voice strained, incensed.
Morris did not care.
When Kiri was angry with people he could not bring himself to hurt, he took a walk. He had learnt that from living with Abela, who could drive you so mad that you wished to break her neck every single day. Instead, he chose to walk until the vindictiveness wore itself out. When he couldn’t walk, maybe due to the alterations in the weather or some other reason, he did something that required extreme exertion, like chopping firewood, logging, digging, etc. It helped to refresh him.
He walked now. He was filled with outrage. It was one thing to tell a man that his wife seemed lonely; it was an entirely different thing to insult his wife to his face. Like what Morris had done. It was disrespectful. It was evil. At one time, he’d thought that Morris was his best friend, a true friend. Morris had had good Christian parents who had instilled a sense of responsibility in him (as opposed to Kiri, whose father had been a chronic drunk that battered his wife like a snake). He had dropped out of high school but almost everybody did that in these parts. Still, he was better than most other people across the village: he neither drank nor smoked and did not quarrel with his family or cheat on his wife. He also worked very hard—and honestly—for his family. Kiri had thought there couldn’t be a better friend.
He doubted that now. Morris had changed lately. The way he insisted on felling all the trees by himself, for one, and the way he didn’t like Kiri to watch him while he worked. One time Kiri had arrived at the forest before him and decided to clear some trees so that Morris would have an easier task. It was what workmates were for: to lighten work for one another. Instead, when Morris arrived, he had been vicious. “Don’t you ever do my work for me again!” he’d warned, his voice laden with contemptuous hate, his eyes shiny, vacant.
Kiri had decided that true friendship was in fact rarer than true love. The whole world bemoaned true love, speaking of heartbreaks, of lies, of pain and disillusionment, yet true friendship was nonexistent. If there were true friendship, there would be true love. But they thought they had found true love because they were horny and deluded and terrified; sooner or later, though, they wished they had first been true friends.
Kiri walked. He crossed deep into the forest where trees were tall and sunlight did not reach the ground. The floor was almost clear, the undergrowth stunted. Here and there, climbing plants wound their way up the big trees. It was still.
He thought he heard a whisper. A young girl’s whisper to her father. He looked around but there was nobody else. It was also hard to pinpoint from which direction it came. It was carried in the wind. He walked on.
Again. He stopped. This part of the forest was scarcely visited. The trees were protected by the government and the officials from the Department of Forestry were nothing less than pissed off black mambas. If they found you here, logging or not, they flogged you without pity and made you carry a huge log by yourself to the main road, which was miles away, before taking you to prison.
Kiri listened. He thought the voice was familiar. Ah! Strange.
It was coming from the opposite edge of the forest where trees were shorter and the undergrowth was a little more prolific.
He went to investigate.
But there was nobody. Just a broken anthill and some branches piled near it. He waited for the voice to repeat but it didn’t. For a second there, he’d thought it belonged to Gita. How strange. Guilt, he decided. The guilt of failing his daughter’s security and also not retrieving her body for proper burial. Morris might have been right: maybe her remains had been discarded somewhere to rot forever and become plant food. Or maybe it had been chopped up to bits and fed to dogs so that there was nothing left to stink and draw attention. He had been impetuous, reckless, and he did not deserve to be forgiven.
He climbed the anthill, about four and half feet of it, and paused at the very top, adding his own five feet eleven inches to it so that he towered beyond ten feet. It felt good to be up there, so lofty and proud, the air cooler, fresher, filtered by the numerous trees. He saw the villages far beyond the slope of the forest, iron sheets sparkling in midday sun. The sky was a vast blue canopy, cloudless and pure. His eyes swept through the forest, saw no one.
It came from directly below him. He saw a footprint, then two, hidden by the branches; he recognized the patterns, gumboots, Morris’ gumboots. Morris had relieved himself there, not too long ago. He’d then concealed his excrement with several branches. Why? Why here? Why come this far?
There is something under this anthill, decided Kiri.
He climbed down, cleared the branches and the faeces, and began digging with the axe. After a few strokes, he prepared a stake and used it to dig, the axe being inefficient. He scooped away loose soil with his hands.
And what he found! Oh, what he found there!
He slumped down, unable to rise. He was in hell.
“Oh Gita!” moaned he.
Several minutes passed before he could focus.
Kikulacho ki nguoni mwako, he reflected, which was Kiswahili for That which eats you is within your clothes. Your worst enemy is the closest to you and will hide in the last place you will ever look.
“Oh Morris, why? Why?”
Kill him, thought he. Kill him now!
He got up.
Morris had taken advantage of Kiri’s absence to have sex with a tree. He knew Kiri had gone too far; Kiri liked long walks when he was furious. The tree was coming down and Morris was coming with it. The crack, the creak, and the whoosh—like a groan, a moan, and a sigh—turned him on beyond hope, and he exploded forth, like thunder, squirting semen in his underwear like a teenager undergoing wet dreams.
He turned to dispose of the saw, which was still running, but then . . . Oh, shit! Shit! He collided with Kiri, who had been rushing towards him with his axe poised as if for attack, his face all fire and brimstone. “What are you doing?” Morris wanted to ask but he could not speak because of the orgasm which was shaking him out of control, unable to stop the saw. It was tearing Kiri’s insides to shreds.
He stopped it when he could, by which time there was a gaping hole through Kiri’s stomach to his back, his ribs shattered, lungs torn, and intestines hanging loose. He was looking accusingly at Morris, wanting to say something, yet no breath. He fell.
Morris was transfixed by what he’d done. He stood over the body, goggling at it. “What is this?” asked he, when he could, his mind whirling. Of all people, how could he kill Kiri? And what had Kiri been thinking coming too close to him like that? This was ugly. This was irreparably ugly.
Abela was still giving birth, being too stupid to stop by herself. And Kiri hadn’t wanted to discuss it with her, for fear of her unstoppable corrosive mouth. She had six children, her lastborn barely three months old. She was also lazy, a slumbering housewife, unlike Achi who ran a charcoal and timber depot at the market. Now Abela was a widow, thanks to Morris . . . and when she died . . . aha! When she died Josi’s brother would sleep with her, appalling as she was when alive. What about when she was dead? She’d be bloated and putrid, her breasts bursting like overripe pawpaw, tumbling down her chest . . . but he would still sleep with her.
Morris flinched at this idea. Without Kiri, Abela’s life would be horror, and would end with the most gruesome horror.
But Morris could not help with any of it. Done was done, and the dead . . . The dead are better than the living, his father had said after his mother’s funeral. We do not mourn that they are dead. We mourn that we are yet living. We mourn ourselves.
With this memory recalled, Morris stopped regretting Kiri’s death. Kiri was better now. He’d no longer have to put up with his shrewish wife, for one. Now all Morris had to do was . . . He saw that Kiri’s hands and boots were coated with red soil—the soft kind that could only be found at an anthill. So that was it. Kiri had found the anthill and dug up the grave. How had he found it? But that was neither here nor there. What disturbed Morris was that . . .
“He was coming to kill me!” he said aloud with astonishment. “He was coming to axe me but I sawed him first. How timely the orgasm! Thanks to my tree. Thank you all the trees. I love you all. You’ve just saved my dear life.”
And he was glad that he had found the singular treasure in the trees. He would never stop.
Still, “Death and burial are like fire and smoke: you cannot have the one without the other,” said he, quoting his father. He had to dispose of the body. But he couldn’t dig a grave. It would arouse suspicion. There also were no more aardvark burrows in the vicinity. What would he do?
“Charcoal,” said he, musing. He would chop up the body and use it to burn charcoal.
An hour later he was done. He had heaped enough wood over the pieces to burn for ten days. The kiln looked like a small house. His customers would be inhaling the fumes of Kiri’s remains from that charcoal. He couldn’t wait to give it to them.
In the evening, he returned Abela’s utensils with which she had brought them lunch.
“Where is Kiri?” inquired she.
“He’s gone to Medi,” Morris said.
“To buy things, of course! What do people do at Medi?”
“That fool!” she swore. “He didn’t tell me about it! I could have sent—”
But Morris did not wait to listen to the rest.
In the morning, she came to his house while he was sharpening his axe. Her face was puckered with worry and she looked most unlovely.
“He didn’t come back,” she reported.
“He will come back,” he assured.
“But he didn’t!”
She left with a melancholy sigh.
At midday, she came to the forest with lunch.
“Have you seen him?” asked she.
“Where did he go?”
“He went to Medi.”
She was about to cry. He could see her bosom heaving heavily. It was like her buttocks when she walked in front of you.
In the evening, she was waiting for him. He saw that she’d been crying, her face puffed, her eyes red.
“Is he back?”
“Now where is this Kiri?”
“I don’t know.”
“But he didn’t say he’d go anywhere after work. He always says.”
“He always says because if he doesn’t you fight with him,” Morris told her, hard. “You are stark raving mad and you drove him insane too. As a matter of fact, he told me that one day he’ll just walk away and never come back. And nobody will ever know where he’s gone. You made him do it, and do not bother me anymore.”
She broke down with mourns and ululations, yelping like a wounded dog. She was the epitome of desolation and misery.
But somebody knew what Morris had done.
After two episodes of orgasmic ecstasy for “Good morning, my lovely darling trees”, he began preparing the previous day’s logs for towing. It was a slow laborious work and he was thinking that he had better get a new workmate soon or he’d die of exertion when he became aware of eyes on him. He was being watched. He rose, twirled around, and there, three metres from him, was Kiri’s mother, Sida. She was composed and unmoving as though she’d been there since the day before. So close, it chilled him.
“What are you doing here?” asked he. She had come too far from home though she was as ancient as the Pharaohs. She was bent at the waist as if she wanted to pick something from the ground.
“Your colour is growing darker and darker,” she said in her rasping, phlegm-coated voice. “I know what you do to the trees. I have seen you with my eyes.”
He was unable to speak.
“The trees are whispering about you,” continued she. “They are crying. They hate you. They are cursing. They call you an abomination.”
“Go away!” he squealed, but he himself stepped back from her. He was shaking and he did not like his voice. It was hollow. Like a damaged reed. He was piping.
“And you killed them,” declared she. “You killed my Kiri and my Gita. You killed them both. I saw you in my mirror. I saw what you wanted to do with Gita, who was named after my mother. She took after my mother. But you killed her! You wanted to rape my mother and you killed her!” she barked suddenly and Morris jumped back again. Her withered, grotesque form reminded him of the monsters he’d imagined as a child.
“I should have yelled at you that morning. I knew what you’d done. I should have told the world what you’d done and saved my son. But I doubted my findings because I thought you were a good man, Morris son of Gogo. You were friends with my Kiri from the time you were children. I attended to you when your mother was away. What spirit has stolen into your heart? I looked again in my mirror today. And I saw you.”
She is a witch, affirmed he. He had been right about her that morning when he found her standing on the path. She had cast a spell for Gita’s murderer to come forth. He should finish her now before she cursed him. She had a malevolent curse with her, like the one her grandmother had imprecated on Josi’s family so that Josi’s elder brother slept with dead widows. Her curse would never relent; it would follow his lineage forever, right from Juma to the very last one, passed on like a genetic anomaly. He picked up the axe.
She did not move. Nor was there fear in her eyes—her squinty, rheumy eyes.
“Take one step towards me with that thing and I will turn your children into weeds!” she barked.
He took the step, paused.
“I will turn your children into weeds!” yelled she.
He approached her head-on.
“I will turn your children into weeds! I will turn your children into weeds! I will—”
He stuck the axe to her forehead, quieting her instantly. The impact shook his arm and warm blood splashed his face.
Another one for his charcoal.
When he got home at sunset, Juma ran to him.
“Baba, Sida was here. She was looking for you.”
Morris stopped dead.
“When?” was all he could ask. There was a cold thing in his stomach. It was churning and making him sick. He had killed Sida in the morning when Juma was in school.
“Just now,” Juma said. “She was dancing at the door with her stick and puffing red dust into the house.”
Morris looked for Achi, who was in the kitchen.
“Did you see Sida?” he asked.
“Only when she’d left,” she replied. “I was in here when she came. I heard her, but she was gone before I could come out. I saw her figure receding towards her home.”
“I must go see her, then,” Morris decided. He wanted a confirmation. Surely, the witch was dead. He had split her head in two.
“Don’t!” Achi snapped, who scarcely raised her voice.
“I don’t like that woman. And I don’t like what the children said she did at our door. Besides, if she had business with you, she’d have told me about it.”
Morris did not go, though it did not lessen his tension and terror. Pieces of Sida’s corpse were right now smouldering to ashes in a kiln up in the forest.
He woke up at dawn from a dream in which his wife and children had become weeds crying to him to save them from the chicken that were eating them in the garden, while across from him, he could see Sida’s silhouette croaking a jeering chant and pointing her walking stick at him: “I turned your children into weeds! I turned your children into weeds . . .”
He sat upright, wet with sweat. And noticed that Achi was not beside him . . .
“Achi! Achi!” he screamed, running out in his underpants. “Achi!”
But she was in the garden behind the kitchen. “What is it?” she asked.
“What are you doing out here at this time?”
“I dreamt that my children were weeds and they disappeared here.” She pointed at the garden.
“Where are they?” Morris asked. He was going mad.
“They are sleeping,” Achi said.
Relief. A surge of relief. He exhaled so deeply his wife frowned at him.
“What is wrong, Morris?” she asked, studying him. “I have been meaning to ask you for a long time now. You are different. You are a foreigner.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he told her.
“Even your dreams have changed. It is all nightmares now. Something is chasing you in the dark and you know what it is. What were you dreaming just now?”
“Nothing about you.”
“What did Sida want here? Where is Kiri?”
“I have neither answers,” he said. “However, I can go ask Sida for you what she wanted here. I’m going.”
He dressed and left. He was unafraid. The witch was dead, wasn’t she? Her whole face had shattered like glass from the impact of the axe.
Her door was ajar but the inside was dark and featureless. He had an instant to consider that door and discover that an open door is in fact scarier than a closed one. He did not want to go in.
“Sida!” he called out. “Sida! Sida!”
But she is dead, thought he. What am I doing? I should just go in. There is nobody.
He started to go in, but then . . .
Movement. Behind him. He spun around like a wheel, emitting a breathless shriek. A single squirt of urine leaked into his underwear. It felt like an ejaculation.
There was something. But it was . . . What the hell is that thing? . . . a small tree? A shrub? A weed? Maybe a person squatting with a big weed on his back, squatting right there in front of Sida’s house where there had been nothing before. But it couldn’t be a person. It had no arms, no legs, or head; it was full of leaves, a plant, a weed, perhaps with fibrous roots and . . . It moved.
Morris ran. He ran like a crazy man. And the thing charged him.
He ran towards his home but, somehow, in that frenzy of terror and panic, decided not to lead his pursuer to his family. He took the path that led to the hill. He could hear the thing close behind. No footsteps, no breath, just leaves, branches, vibrating, susurrating and whooshing in the wind.
He kicked a rock and flew, landed on his belly hard enough to think it had cracked. The thing fell on his back. It was a plant. Nothing human about it. Morris cried out once but leaves filled his mouth, tendrils tightened around his neck, and branches crucified both his arms and legs to the ground. And there was something in his trouser, a cold, wormy thing, wriggling in the crack of his buttocks, seeking his anus. It slithered up his rectum. Up up up. A new breed of terror seized him, murderous and deranged, and he fought without thought, only to get out alive. But he was overpowered by his rapist.
Thereafter, he recalled nothing more.
“There is something in our garden. It is talking,” Juma said. The poor boy was in shock. He had arrived nearly flying and alarmed Abela herself.
“What is it?” Abela asked, touching his head to comfort him.
“I don’t know. There are voices, and they are saying ‘Juma, help us! Juma, help us!’”
“Where is your mother and sisters?”
“I don’t know. There is nobody at home.”
“I’m coming with you,” Abela decided.
“I’m not going back!” the boy cried and cringed from her.
“Okay, you just stay here. I will go and look.”
Abela left her home for Morris’. When she reached, she was greeted by quietness. It was rather too early for Achi to have left for the market. The sun was yet to rise and as usual she should be preparing children for school while Morris prepared his tools. It seemed he too had left.
“Achi!” Abela called out. “Morris! Achi!”
When there was no response, she repeated their names. Still, nobody answered. Yet for some odd reason, Abela felt as though somebody was watching her. The door was open and she went into the house. But it was empty. The beds were unmade, which surprised Abela, knowing how neat Achi was. Maybe one of the girls had fallen sick and Morris and Achi had to rush them to the hospital. But how could three girls become sick all at once? That too was odd.
Anyway, Abela decided to leave. She had her own Kiri to worry about and nobody was on her side. Everybody said she was to blame for his disappearance.
“Abela!” The voice was from the garden by the kitchen. It was Achi’s voice.
“Achi!” Abela replied and went that way. At last there they are, thought she. But when she went behind the kitchen there was no one.
“Achi!” she called again, searching.
“We are here!” the voices cried. “We are weeds! We are weeds! We are—”
There were four alien plants strewn at random at Abela’s feet. Each about a foot high, they had black stems and branches but ashy leaves and gray sooty flowers shaped like mouths and ears. They were speaking.
Abela shrilled and took off, leaping away like a wild animal, overtaken by superstitious terror. She weighed over two hundred pounds but at that moment it was her life at stake and the weight did not encumber her.
Word soon spread around the villages and people came to witness the talking weeds for themselves. No one, however, left Morris’ home happy with the testimony; they all left tongue-tied, their hearts weighed down with terror. Some of them ran to their pastors and preachers; others to witch doctors. A woman, who had come by herself, had a heart attack, though mild, and had to be lifted away. It was an unspeakable thing, what they had witnessed. But people are puzzling creatures and many others kept coming. In the end, the stream dwindled until only children came by sometimes to scare one another. Morris’ home became desolated. Weeds swallowed it. The voices moaned and mourned at the passersby, forcing them to change route.
Juma went to live with his uncle. He dropped out of school because students would not stop making derisive jokes at him. They mimicked his mother and sister’s voices crying in the garden and wished him to become a weed as well.
“Your mother is calling to you. Why did you abandon her?” one would say.
“One day you will wake up and you will be a plant too!” another would say.
“Today after school, I am taking my goat to eat your mother!” yet another.
“How do you think it would taste if their leaves were boiled as vegetable?” yet another.
He couldn’t stand it.
When he was fifteen, he took up his father’s job. He had an axe and a chainsaw. The saw was unwieldy at first but there were older school dropouts with whom to handle it. Ten years later, when he had a wife, a son, and a daughter, he discovered, by a kind of warped serendipity, really—he never had to kill a little girl for it—the pleasure only his father had known. He became married to the trees . . . and polygamously so!
He had been spared for a purpose after all.
Several days later . . .
The sun. The glaring flaring flaming orb hanging, as if by magic, above the earth but never quite falls down on it. It shines into his bones. It infuses his flesh. He is fascinated by it and can look up at it forever without shielding his eyes. It permeates his body, even his eyes, to the very last cell and he’s convinced that he lives only by virtue of its existence. He is stark naked and can feel it piercing him, probing his vitals, diffusing. The sensation bites, tingles, thrills feverishly. It is bracing. And something happens in him. Something is happening to him. A change. A great unalterable change. There is a seed in him. He is becoming.
Water. He needs abundant water to go with the sun. It is the reason he elects to return home. He is parched to the bone; the change he experiences exhausts his water reservoir too fast and he needs a constant undiminished replenishment. He recalls his home and walks in the direction. On the way, he happens on a puddle. It is milky brown and thick and shiny at the top. Mosquito larvae swim in it, dead houseflies float on it, and tiny insects jump off when he approaches. He steps into it with his bare feet without knowing why, without anticipating the act. He waits for something to occur. When nothing does, he lies down on his stomach and drinks it all like a cow.
He is eating the mud and crushing earthworms with his teeth when he feels the ground vibrating and looks up. But the man is still too far away to be seen. He is a big man and makes the ground vibrate too much. Morris runs and crouches behind a brush. He can see the man but he cannot be seen.
“Morris! Morris!” the man shouts, looking here and there. When there is no response, he sighs, “Ah! I thought I saw him coming this way!”
He is carrying a machete and it sends chills down Morris’ spine. The man can cut him with that. It’s what humans do. They cut you. Humans are no good for the trees. You give them shade and fruits and flowers, and, most importantly, oxygen; you purify their air, which they continuously fill with enough toxins to wipe them out, and when you’re dead, you give them wood for fire; but all they do is cut. Cut and cut and cut. They think you do not feel pain. They think they know and understand. How can you not feel pain when you grow and excrete and heal your wounds? The old humans understood and made buildings with rocks that have lasted to date; the new ones think they understand and marvel at the buildings while making love to the trees with sharpened blades. They won’t rest until you’re broken and dead. But they burn their rubbish, and hide their faeces, and bury their corpses too deep in coffins that do not rot, or cremate them and sprinkle the ashes in the sea, so that trees do not benefit from humans at all. Humans are a curse to the trees. When you see one, take off if you can. But there is no way to take off when you are a tree. There is a joke that trees tell themselves to mock their situation. It goes like this: “Why do humans worship Jesus? Because he was a carpenter!”
When the intruder is gone, Morris darts back into the hill. He must keep away from humans. He searches for water and hastens further and further into the forest until he finds a dank place that never dries. It smells rich and sweet and he feeds without a thought to spare. The corruption, the putrescence, the death—it fills him; he converts death back to life; he consumes the perversion of time and rejuvenates earth. He is the resurrection. He is the life after death.
But he needs the sun and he must move while he still can. The seed is growing and soon he will not be able to move. As he hurries downhill, a bird lands on his shoulder. He is fascinated and he doesn’t send it away. He likes it right where it is. It is beautiful and alive, and when it speaks, its voice is mellow and pure, healthier than anything in his memory. “Is it going to rain soon?” it asks. “No,” he says. “Will there be an earthquake any soon?” “No.” “Are there any eagles, kites, or snakes nearby?” “There is a black mamba in that tree yonder, and a kite has a nest in the fifth one north of it,” he says and points at both trees. “Do you think I should build my nest around here?” “If you can put it very high,” answers he. “I cannot put it very high,” says the bird. “I am a small bird. I must look for a new place. But thank you so much. You have helped me so,” it adds and flies away happily. He is full of wonder. He is knowledgeable without trying. He knows the language of the birds, of the trees, of everything. He has acquired the memory of trees. Trees know multitudes of things. They know all the history of the world. The seed has imbued him with knowledge.
He stops near a broken anthill. He can feel the sun. There is also a good smell and he searches for it. It emanates from a human corpse buried (or inserted, really) in an aardvark burrow. It invites him. His first real meal will be a human corpse. Now isn’t that something? He climbs onto it and becomes very still. He waits for something to happen.
Time . . .
Then something happens. The transformation begins. His toes burst and roots emerge forth from them. It pains him but the process is essential. His feet become the main roots from which the small ones break out. His legs fuse, thighs clamp tightly, as if glued by God or the Devil, and his genitals vanish. Ribs shatter and rejoin, bones coalesce, melt, and stiffen, spine stretches straight like a rod, skin hardens, spreads, and covers his face, teeth rattle, break, and fall out of his mouth, jaws merge in perfect stillness, and his arms become branches, facing the sun. His hair, ears and fingers become shoots, and up they shoot.
For months, he is in so much pain he cannot help screaming. He wants to scratch somewhere but there is no way to do it. He weeps nonstop.
Then the pain goes.
He has become . . . IT
But it can still see!
Several years later . . .
It sees the young man coming and recognizes him at once. So grown is he, so robust. Just like the father before. But there is a corruption about him. He is rank with perversion. And he walks like a wicked man. He is carrying an axe. It gleams in the sun like a serpent’s tongue. It makes the leaves curl in fear and the roots moan with dismay. He comes too close and climbs the father. The father screams for him to stop. The father senses what he is about to do. His eyes say it all. And the front of his trouser is bulging forth as if with a potato. The father screams abomination. He wails. But humans do not hear what trees say. Humans think trees do not talk. Juma therefore continues to climb undeterred, and when he is satisfied with the height, he ensconces himself and begins to lop off a branch. His axe is sharper than a witch’s razor and his excitement grows with each strike. He is frantic when the branch breaks, and he clinches the father in a violent embrace, shrieking like a barbaric thing. The father, racked by pain and horror, wishes the world would come to an end right away . . .