Your Brief Bio:
I'm Izu Nelson. My girlfriend says I'm a weirdo. She says this after she says I'm goofy. I hope she rests on a definitive adjective for me, soon.
P.S: I like to draw but not as much as I love to write.
Tweet-Style Story Summary:
Beneath The Pear Tree is a love story that draws you in right from the off. You would be carried along by Mama, and you would marvel at how deeply she loves Ikenna. In the end, some things have to go so that what's new may come.
Beneath The Pear Tree by Mac
The pear tree that is in the middle of our compound is an aged thing. Its stem is as broad as two men shoulder to shoulder, curved, narrowing as it stretches high up. The branches that rise from its stem quickly readjust themselves into a dome shaped crown, shrouded by leaves.
The pear tree is a silent observer, watching all. It is there when my father goes about his daily routine. In the mornings, before the sun peeks over the horizon, my father would take a grime-stained rag to his bike. Maintaining the newness of this bike is a futile battle my father fights daily. He would concentrate on those rusted rims, scrubbing them in circles where they go in circles, going straight where they go straight, silent and enthusiastic, his eyes intent, his grip hard. Faster and faster he would go, lost in his bid to somehow stay the rust.
The pear tree is there with Mama. I call my grandmother ‘Mama’, and I sometimes imagine that if the pear tree has a voice, it would call her the same thing. Whenever a full moon shines, in the period of the year when the cold winds blow, Mama would embrace the pear tree to herself. Her incomplete set of teeth, ridden from wear, would be gritted in angst, as she clings to that crooked stem fiercely, her frail fingers reaching. It always surprises me how strong Mama is. Her eyes lie sunken, above weathered cheeks, eyes that brim with all the wisdom of age. The soft skin which surrounds her nose droops, making her face slightly incapable of portraying many expressions. Regardless, nobody who sees Mama in those emotional sojourns beneath the pear tree, would misapprehend the pain so vivid. This same emotion has, over the years, somehow imbued itself in a scalding bloom of fire, evident in those sojourns, and in a calming douse of ice, evident in her songs, so that now it is no more than what can only be ever described as a sweet sort of wound.
Mama loves her gods. Every morning, before even my father has woken up, before the cock has crowed, she starts to pray. The shrine, the one she erected on the mesa behind our little house is where she goes to worship. She goes naked, her hands spread apart in very open subordination, her mood serious, reverent. Her shrine is a small hut with the traditional thatched roof, and its entrance is too small for a very big man. At the very narrow entrance, Mama lies down flat with her nose to the ground. She crawls into her place of worship on her belly. Mama has explained to me before why she enters in this manner; something about entering the realm of the gods in the same manner you were born.
Inside, the shrine comes alive. There is an eerie calm about the place, a frightful quietude. Decorating the wall opposite the entrance are sculpted heads. Those heads are the earthly representatives of fierce gods. As Mama crawls in, the heads watch, silent and brooding, their eyes casting a gloom about the place. Mama has painted the walls of her shrine a piercing red, so red it seems the walls bleed. Here and here are lit candles that Mama never allows to burn out. She starts to pray. Her nose remains on the ground as she prays for peace, and for harvest, and for all the pleasures that life can ever promise. At the end of her prayers, she dances to music only she can hear. She throws one leg as far forward as it can go before she spins, throwing her arms about all the time. When she is done, she gets on her belly and exits the same way she came in.
The early morning prayers end after Mama has sprinkled salt all over the compound. The salt signifies purity, is what she says. Obviously, demons fret over a little salt.
In the afternoons, Mama's transfiguration would be startling to a fresh observer. She would have washed off all the sand and dirt from the morning’s excesses and she would be dressed in any of her well sewn wrappers. When she's not praying, Mama prefers to look good.
She spends most of her days in the shade of the pear tree, gossiping with me most times, and other times sharing her pellets of wisdom with anyone who cares. She absolutely glows when she talks about herself, and her wispy hair becomes a white so silver, it shines on its own.
Mama likes to talk to bother me with talk about her maidenhood. Over and over, she reiterates that her figure “was like when you take two big round juicy oranges and you place them side by side.”
Yesterday, despite my growing pique with her stories, she spoke again. This time it was the very familiar tale about “him”.
I sat with her in the shade of the pear tree when she began by saying, “Nnennaya, close your legs. If not, flies will enter that place!” I thought of a witty response and there was none, so I just laughed along with her, my legs coming together in obeisance.
Her eyes seemed to sink deeper, the glow in her face appeared to have considerably dimmed, and this was when I thought to myself.., Here we go again.
She began. It was in the days of our fathers, she said, long before the white men appeared with their bicycles, guns and books. Small battles were waged between the simple folk of Ifana and the marauders, cohorts of the exiled Prince Ilefi, who felt no small measure of scorn after his king father had declared his twin brother, but the younger of the two, heir. Prince Ilefi’s plan was to attack those smaller parts of the realm, rendering them completely docile before he would finally seize the kingdom as his. Mama went to the stream to fetch water ---
And this was where I stopped her. “But Mama”, I said, “Why is it that in all your stories, you are going to fetch water?” She laughed shrilly, her small head bobbing up and down.
Then she continued. The Ekulu River separated Ifana from the next village, it still does. Ifana’s wrestlers, the ones who fought in the village square on the first night of every full moon, practiced on the bank of Ekulu. Sometimes, they fought each other in matches that would not count when, at the end of the year, the king would declare who the best wrestler was. Those matches were also fun to watch, even though they were nothing like the spectacle of moon-lit nights. Mama watched the men as they did their stretches, stalling, languidly drawing her calabash over the surface of the river. With her smooth caramel skin, her big round eyes, her full soft lips, and her rich, thick afro, Mama was a sight to behold. It was little wonder that the men also took longer to do their stretches whenever she was present. In all, eight wrestlers did their practice that afternoon, and together, they made a handsome spectacle. But Mama had eyes for the man she had always known, at least in her head, as “him”. He was a good head taller than every other wrestler who trained with him. Local lore held that he was the king’s bastard son, and as with other royal bastards, had not lived a particularly easy life. Hence, wrestling became his shot at redemption. But whatever is not truly known can only be rumored. His dark skin, taut all over what was a domineering physique, glistened in the sun. He was the champion of the wrestlers and they hung on every word that left his lips; admonition or praise. The men challenged each other, all eight of them reeled in. Challenges were always settled in a match. Mama became alert, eagerly awaiting the drama that would ensue. In pairs the men would fight, and the last man standing would be the victor. The fighting began. Mama watched, her full water-pot balanced on the earth in front of her, as one by one, the man who had her attention threw down his opponents. There was an aloofness to him, an assuredness, like he already knew even before the fighting began, that he would win. A small crowd, made up mostly of market folk and smitten maidens had formed an arc around the fighting men. One by one, the thrown men exited the circle till the final fight was at hand and one flutist had begun to blow. The final pair stalked each other, their gazes steely, their hands twitching from all the work they had already been through. His opponent spat a slew of vitriol at him and he responded in kind. When they came together, it was like the superposition of two opposing waves; catastrophe. They grappled. Time slowed and the sound of the playing flute faded away. Only the men wrestling in the circle mattered. There was a harsh tug here and a responsive pull there. One man’s leg was lifted from the ground before he spun his body away from defeat in an incredible maneuver. Muscles were stretched and eyes rolled into skulls; still no victor was realized. The crowd waited, and Mama watched on, stifling a blush when his heaving chest seemed to wink at her. The wrestlers met again, even more fiercely. Then someone was lifted off the ground, and with a harsh groan escaping snarled lips, this person was dumped to the hard earth with a thump. The crowd cheered! He had won. He lifted his hands high in the air and the crowd hurried to him. Ikenna! Ikenna! Ikenna! They cheered, the flutist blew harder. A crown of leaves was placed on his head. The crowd cheered louder! And Mama cheered loudest! It was beautiful. Mama recalls now how much the air stank of sweat, of spit, and of a hundred unwashed mouths.
It was thoroughly unexpected then, when one chanting body fell to the ground, the nock of an arrow sticking from his eye; the flutist. The crowd, startled to silence, looked here and there as one. The marauders poured in from over the hills astride the Ekulu like melting wax. Realization dawned, and the crowd scattered. Screams rent the air as bodies crashed into bodies, cursing themselves before disappearing through holes in rocks or pathways in bushes. Mama's mother had been amongst the cheering crowd. Mama's mother had always complained about her aching back, and yet that day, Mama saw her sprint like a deer on hot coals. Mama fled after her. She coiled the ends of her wrapper in a fist and she ran as fast as her legs could take. Arrows wheezed through the air, screams choked off into gurgled throes of death while sharp scythes made violent contacts with bodies.
The plan was to take out Ifana’s renowned wrestlers, further weakening what remained of the village’s resolve. As Prince Ilefi’s marauders pursued, Mama ran into the narrow path that led to the hut that was home.
A boy, no more than six, with skin the color of the sun and hair a very thick brown that was near red, struggled along that path, limping as he went. Mama picked him up like an athlete would, as she ran for her dear life. The moon’s light, peeking through the interlocked fingers of branches above, lit the way for her. She ran into the hut that was home. Mama’s mother was already in, hiding beneath many layers of cloth. She shrieked when Mama barged in. “Please don’t take me!”, She cried, “Please! I will give you my daughter!” Mama pushed the tame, wooden door shut and gestured, with a finger to her lips, that her mother shush.
She tiptoed, with the boy in tow, and squatted low with him at the farthest corner of the room. They waited. The gloom was palpable, a living and breathing animal that only served to heighten their fear. Her mother's fitful blubbering threatened their hideout, so she crawled to where her mother was and placed a calming hand on her. The boy remained still as stone. He sat on his haunches and his eyes were tightly shut.
There came, from outside, the hard thump of approaching feet. It stopped. Her mother’s breathing became noisy with mounting terror.
“OPEN THIS DOOR!!!”, a voice barked from outside.
Subconsciously, Mama squeezed on her mother’s shoulder. Her mother quivered beneath her touch like the leather of a struck drum.
The voice outside barked harder, “IF YOU DON’T OPEN THIS DOOR AND I GET IN, YOU WILL NOT LIKE WHAT WILL HAPPEN!!!”
A whimper escaped her mother's lips and was immediately choked off when Mama clapped a hand to the woman’s mouth. Mama’s mother bit and chewed, fighting her way to say her peace but Mama held firm. The boy squeezed himself tighter into the wall, his presence near forgotten. Abruptly, the shouting from outside stopped. Her mother smiled, revealing teeth that were black, incomplete, and withered by tobacco. A few tense moments passed, and was shattered when kick to the door ripped it apart so that only splinters remained attached to the jamb. The man at the door was so huge he appeared more elephant than man. The mammoth of an axe he held was like a toothpick in his grip. The women began shrieking as he stepped into the hut, the dying light from outside casting his face in faint relief. It was an ugly face, with a scar that ran down a whisker below his eyes, across his nose and stopped just above his upper lip, drawing up the lip to show off his teeth in what was an indelible snarl.
“SHUT UP!” he barked, his cold, empty eyes taking them in.
The screams stopped. The man’s gaze, cold as steel, was fixed upon the fresh prey before him. Mama’s mother began to blubber, fitfully, enraging the man so much he lunged forward and struck her hard across the face. She let out a wail as the force of the blow dislodged her from Mama’s hold. Mama recoiled, shrunk into herself, and began muttering her supplication to the gods for mercy from this great brute of a man. Mama would often say that she knew what was to come. She saw the hunger in the way his lips twitched. He would have her there and then, like a dog, and if she met his tastes he would take her back to wherever his “brothers” had camped. If he was kind they would lock her in a room and use her as they pleased. Mama could not bear to think what might happen if he was unkind.
“COME HIA!,” he growled.
Mama remained on her knees, frozen in place by fear. A scream was startled out of her when the man’s thewed hand grabbed her. He lifted her off the ground, and Mama struggled ineffectually in his grasp. Without regard, he positioned her so that her back was to him. Her mother sobbed; it was a low lifeless cry, and she clutched the single piece of clothing she was wearing firmly to her breasts. Mama clenched her jaw, bracing herself for what she had heard always came during a first; a sharp pain followed by a few seconds of bewilderment. The man yanked down his breeches so that they lay in a heap above his knees, and in the stories Mama’s mother would tell afterward, his member was the size of a pestle.
At this point in the story, Mama laughed like she always did. Her eyes sparkled when she told of how the only thing she saw was the shadow that fell on the room. And how the next thing she saw was the brute falling to the ground because Ikenna, the man from the stream, had buried the brute’s axe deep in his back. Mama would tell it all with a strange glow in her eyes; about how she never knew that the sight of blood could be so refreshing. It was sweet music to Mama’s ears as she listened to the brute die, choking on his own blood.., those cold eyes growing even colder. The man, Ikenna, tossed the axe aside and hastened to Mama’s side. He secured her clothing around her and lifted her easily into his arms, carrying her over to the single bed in the room. He lay beside her while Mama’s mother thanked the gods for their mercy, a flurry of words that gradually deadened Mama’s terror and caused her to drift off into slumber.
It was morning when she woke up, and Ikenna was gone. The marauders were also gone, leaving in their wake a village mourning its loss of lives and property..
A week passed before Ikenna returned to Mama.. He looked different from the way he’d looked at the river. He was clean-shaven and dressed in colorful red cloth worn around his waist, with red beads dangling from his neck. It was midday when he came. Mama was over a fire, frying nuts in an earthen pot. Mama was bashful with her thanks for his rescue on that fateful evening. When he spoke with her, he told her that his name, Ikenna, means “the strength of my father”. Obviously, he was not as good with words as he was with his hands. But Mama listened, drawn, saying that he should say his name again and again as though she knew, even then, that his was a name that she would always whisper to herself.
Thus began a whirlwind romance.
He would come and they would sit beneath a pear tree, Mama’s legs placed together in front of her, as she stared adoringly at him while he regaled her with his stories. Sometimes Mama’s mother would sit with them, and if he told tales of the white men, the preachers that had just come into Ifana, and how he imagined an arrow might look sweetly nestled in their pink buttocks, Mama’s mother would laugh, her eyes tightly, shut. On the days they drank palm wine, after feasting on roasted capon soaked in spicy vegetable stew, they would dance till the sun set. And after the sun had set, in the moonlight, away from the watchful eyes of Mama’s mother, they would kiss. Ikenna would hold Mama to himself, his fingers running through the thick glory of her full hair and onto the small of her back as he whispered in her ears how she had brought the sun’s shine to his life. In that embrace, he would sing softly to her:
My Nana my Nana, my pretty sweet Nana
For the sweet taste of your lips
I will do a thousand back flips
My Nana my Nana, my pretty sweet Nana
Embrace me and be my fire And when the wind blows, let me be your lover
My Nana my Nana, my pretty sweet Nana
Please be my strength and my shield
When ten thousand fight me in the field…
Mama’s face would glow at his words, her entire being brimming with life by the magic of his presence.
The fifth day of every twelfth moon was set aside for worship of all the river spirits and all the thunder gods. Masquerades flooded the village’s square on those days. There was Ibutu, who was twenty feet tall and who, it was said, slept in an ant’s hole. There was Ikeadara ‘The Fierce’, who chased women and children about with a whip. If a pregnant woman looks at Ikeadara in the eyes, she would lose her baby, they said. Everywhere, throughout the villages on every side of Ifana, Ikeadara was revered. He was twelve feet tall with a horn on his forehead. His regalia was impressive, a delicate embroidery of akwa oche and akwete, hemmed loosely by strands of straw lined with beads that jiggled as he moved about. He also carried a whip longer and sturdier than all the other masquerades’. The manner in which he wielded this whip earned him the name, Ikeadara ‘the Fierce’. Smaller masquerades like Oha and Mirimma also danced on masquerade days.
That year, a crowd had formed around the performing masquerades. Drums were beat, flutes were blown, and the masquerades jumped to impossible heights, spun at incredible angles, before easily landing on their feet. From safe distances, children aimed imprecations at the masquerades only to scamper away when they came close.
Mama and Ikenna were amongst the cheering crowd. Ifana’s chief was in a small tent at the head of the crowd, brutish guards with long battle axes barred the way to him. He wore an immaculate crown; a conical piece of beautiful craftsmanship, complete with circles of beads deftly woven into concentric circles that adorned his head. Over the din of the ongoing ceremony, Ikenna told Mama many things; about how she would give life to the many seeds between his legs, about how he was about to be the wealthiest man in the village, about how on the ninth day of the ninth moon, he hoped to take a keg of palm wine to her mother and to take her to his home in return, and about the life he imagined they would have, complete with full barns and happy children.
That day, when the marauders came, shooting their arrows in the air and forcing pandemonium, Ikeadara ‘The Fierce’ was the first to run. He took off his mask like it was on fire and took to his heels. The man beneath the mask was small and frail. He looked around, panic struck, before jumping into the bushes. Ifana’s chief, with everyone that made up his retinue had also somehow vanished. Screams lashed about as the villagers fled from the wrath of the marauders. Quickly, to avoid further escapes, the invaders formed themselves into a circle around the square, trapping almost all of the villagers within. Prince Ilefi was the fat, short man who casually strolled into the circle the masquerades had just been performing in. “One of you killed one of ours,” he said. His manner was gentle, like the kind of man who’d kill another with a smile. “We promise that we will not harm any of you if that person surrenders himself to us.”. His beady eyes searched the crowd, commanding a veneration that defied his small frame.
“If, on the other hand, no one surrenders, then you all will suffer for his crime,” he promised.
The atmosphere was tense as the villagers began looking around, silently accusing every other person of the offense the prince had alleged.
A small boy, about six years, stepped out of the crowd. He walked with a limp. His hair was a very thick brown, almost red, and his skin was the color of the sun. Mama would never forget the Ikenna’s eyes, how they became frozen stars, as they watched the boy limp toward the prince. He got to the prince’s side, and the man bent forward so he could hear the boy speak to him in a low tone. As Ilefi listened, his lips curved in a very arctic smile. Then, the boy turned to the crowd, his eyes searching. Those eyes went past Ikenna and Mama, scanning. And then his penetrative gaze returned. The albino lifted his hand and indicted Ikenna with his index finger. Prince Ilefi only had to grunt slightly, and his men pounced on Ikenna.
Oh, how Mama screamed and screamed when Ikenna was taken away. No! She cried. This was not the plan! They were to get married and she was to bear his children! They would dance together on moonlit nights and she would sit in his thighs! She was still screaming, pleading that they let her beloved back into her arms when a strong hand hit her in the head.
Mama fell, and stared after Ikenna, his eyes still frozen, as he was led away. Her scream of anguish died in her breast as blackness overwhelmed her.
She woke up inside the room she shared with her mother. A small candle burned in one corner of the room. The light created shadows, the shadows became memories. Here and here shadows would reach out, knives clasped in intent hands, poking at her cruelly, giggling whenever she sniffled.
Mama wept hard.
Days turned to weeks. Mama would lie naked in the shrine as she prayed to all the gods. Sometimes, in a fit of pure rage, she would knock down the sculpted heads that adorned the shrine. However, she always returned. Naked and subservient, she would put them up again and she would pray anew.
Two months passed and Mama still prayed. Her tummy swelled, and constant morning fevers made her aware that she was carrying Ikenna's child inside her. She sought consolation in this. But it frightened her that this child would grow up without ever knowing the warmth of Ikenna’s embrace. Yet, she would teach the child, she knew this, she would teach him to be strong and warm at the same time.
In time, Ifana fought back. The chief had had enough of his errant son’s invasion and mobilized an army that battled Prince Ilefi until he was vanquished. Captives were freed and the rebellion against the crown fell..
On a bright cloudless afternoon, he returned. Mama threw away the kernels she had been grinding when she saw Ikenna approach. When they embraced, and Ikenna smiled, Mama could feel the child in her womb kick for the first time.
They lay in bed that night, with Mama’s mother freshly buried in the earth close to her shrine, and Mama touched him. His eyes became frozen, sparkling in the darkness when she took her hands between his legs, a soft whimper escaped his lips. Realizing what had been done, that those parts of him that he, as a man, took his pride in had been stolen from him, that what remained was a stump no more than a swollen pimple, Mama wept for him. Her fingers, in the dark, found his, latching on, tight.
The tears they shed dried on both their cheeks that night, and nothing was ever said but everything had been totally understood. Ikenna’s soul had been ripped out, and what was left was a man that had been made to forget all that a man must be.
Mama was shocked when two days later, she found his lifeless body dangling from one of the sturdier branches of the pear tree outside. She dropped everything, all the food she had just prepared for his breakfast, and she ran to him. She embraced him then, holding his legs tightly to her face for hours. It was dusk before she could get herself to cut down the rope. His eyes were white and lifeless, rimmed by a darker shade of black compared to his skin. She shut his eyelids and she kissed his head. He should rest now. She was shocked, yet she understood.
Mama took the same axe that was used to kill that brute and she cut down every branch from that tree. She cut off the stem, taking it layer by layer, till all that was left was the root. She dug out the root, pulling it all away and then burned it with the rest of the tree. It was long and tedious work but Mama did not relent. It was the ninth month, after she had first felt those early morning fevers that Mama finished with her demolition of the old pear tree. She dug up Ikenna’s body from the narrow grave she had first buried him in, placing in the ground where the old pear tree had once stood. She took a seed and she buried it with him. A day after she planted a new seed, she birthed her son. She named him Ikenna.
Mama often talks about the significance of her destroying that tree; sometimes before the new must come forth, she says, the old must be put to rest.
So it is that every new moon that comes, when the cold winds blow, whether the sun shines or whether it rains heavy, Mama would dress in all of her best clothes. She would apply a thin coating of black maquillage to her lips and she would sit on a small stool beneath the pear tree. Smiling like a nubile young woman, she would sing all the songs that had been sung those days beneath the pear tree, and she would let the tears flow down her cheeks. Then she would embrace the stem of that tree, tight, her fingers reaching behind it as she undoubtedly recalls all the nights she shared with the man whom had once called her, “sunshine”. My Nana my Nana, my pretty sweet Nana… The songs would be on her lips all through the night and when dawn comes, Mama would leave, withered, till the moon comes again.