THERE STOOD THE MANGO TREE
A slight wind was blowing. The deep green leaves of the lone tree swayed gently. It already promised to be a great day.

The day they met, she had woken up earlier than usual, while it was still dark out. Her heart was troubled and her mind was in turmoil. Thoughts circling around in her head, like vultures over a fresh kill, had her finally giving up on sleep in the predawn hours. Maybe some fresh air would be good. She wrapped a blanket around herself to wade off the early morning chill and slowly opened the door.

In minutes, she was walking along the path that passed through the village. At this hour all was quiet and the only illumination was provided by a few stars and a full moon. It was very bright, almost like day time, everything bathed in a silvery hue.

She headed to the mango tree just past the village. She didn’t come here often, but when she did she always felt such peace here, a feeling unique to this place. It looked dark and ominous, casting a large shadow on the ground. It stood there, silent and ever watchful, at least to her. She could not help the shiver that passed through her body. She went and sat down beneath the tree, letting out all the air she’d been holding inside her body. Already she could feel her fears and worries fading away.

How could her father do this to her, sell her to the highest bidder? Why couldn’t she be allowed to marry for love?

She was startled by the man headed her way. Like her, he seemed disturbed, lost in his own thoughts. She didn’t want anyone to see her, so she tried to edge around the tree to the other side. She really tried to go quietly about it, but he must have heard the leaves rustling beneath her as she shifted because he grew still for a moment, and then started approaching more carefully. He spotted a moving shadow to his left and got ready to pounce. Just then a shaft of moonlight pierced through the tree’s foliage and turned the unknown shadow into the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen in his life. He found himself wondering if she was a vision conjured up by his overactive imagination. Surely, what would a lady like that be doing in a place like this, at such a time?

Awe and mute shock had him immobilized till the look of fear on her face registered. He could see that she was going to leave unless he said something to make her last a while longer, but try as he could, he could think of nothing. His brain had turned to mush the minute he saw her.

” Ummm, lovely night, isn’t it? ”

He winced and almost kicked himself for that statement. From the way she was looking at him, it was clear that she wanted desperately to be somewhere else.

“Don’t go. I’m sorry, I promise not to disturb you. Are you lost? ”

She stopped and looked at him, really looked at him. He was tall and fairly good looking. While she did not claim to know everyone in the village, she was certain that she had never seen him before today. He had a really nice voice, too, deep and commanding. She felt compelled to answer.

“I am afraid that it is you that seems to be lost. Good day, sir.” She turned and started walking up the path to the village.

The next day he woke up even earlier than usual and went to the mango tree. To his surprise and immense delight, she was there as well. That was just the beginning, and as they met more frequently, both of them forgot to care for the fact that it was an ungodly hour of the morning. It took a few days for them to start talking, and even longer for them to admit to mutual feelings of love. Both of them knew that their love was doomed from the start by circumstances beyond their control but that only made their illicit love affair all the more stronger. He had been willing to declare his love for her to her father, her betrothed, and any other person who cared to listen and ask for her hand in marriage, but she had begged him not to. She was afraid for him, knowing her father would act swiftly and ruthlessly if he heard that a poor man wanted to marry his daughter. She didn’t care either way, but for the sake of peace, she asked him to establish himself first before speaking with her father. In the meantime, she would speak with her father and get him to call off the fast approaching wedding.

THEY stopped embracing and sat down at the base of the tree facing away from the village, just in case.

“How I have missed you, Serah. Tell me, what did I miss since I’ve been away?’’He loped an arm around her shoulders and looked at her expectantly.

He saw the shadows that invaded her eyes before she could evade his gaze. In a clear attempt to change the subject, she said,” Forget about our little village. Tell me all about your trip to the city. How did it go? What did you see? Were you successful? ”

He could have pressed her to tell him what was really bothering her, but he knew her well enough to know that she would reveal all when she was good and ready. For now he began his tale.

“I went to see that man in the city. I told you about him, remember? He told me that his boss, the man who was to give me the gardening job, is out of town at the moment. He told me to go back there next week. ”

He saw the worried look in her eyes. “Don’t worry, he assures me that the job is as good as mine.”

“It’s not that. It’s just-”

“He-e-ey, don’t worry. This is my chance to get out of this village and make something of myself. Once I get that job, everything will change for the better, you’ll see.” He took a deep breath. “Come with me.”

“What do you mean?” Serah asked.

He sat up straighter and moved in front of her, clasping both her hands between his. “I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I want us to elope.”

“Elope?”

“Yes, elope,” he said, getting fired up about his topic. “I love you, and I know that you love me. Once I get that job, we won’t have to stay here anymore. We could go to the city and I will take care of you. No one will be able to keep us apart, not even your father.”

“I have to tell you something. I had hoped that I wouldn’t have to tell you today. It’s about my father. He told me that he accepted the final dowry payments. As is the custom, I’ll be going to live in my hus-hus-husband’s house after two weeks.” Her breath hitched as tears fell from her eyes.

He almost doubled over from the pain inside his chest. Was this what heartbreak felt like? Sure, he’d always known that she belonged to another. In his heart, he’d believed that love would be enough, that it would scatter all the opposition around them. How foolish could he be?

“It’s okay, my love. I’m sorry you had to go through that alone, that I wasn’t here with you.” He gave her a brief hug. “This is why I believe we should move fast. Let’s just disappear from this place. We could go and start a new life together, just the two of us.”
“You don’t understand, Loti!” She said with exasperation. “I am now as good as married. My father will have me watched like a hawk from now on.” She turned away from him. “Please let’s not talk about this anymore. Tell me what you saw in the city. Are the houses there really as tall as trees, as they say?” She tried to inject some enthusiasm in her voice.

Loti followed her lead and they sat down once again. Soon her look of rapt fascination was real as she listened to all he had to say. There was no talk of marriage or elopement, yet a cloud of worry still hung over the two.

The mango tree watched over the two lovers, as lost at finding a way out of this predicament as they were. None noticed the shadow that quickly made its way back to the village, having heard all and eager to share it with others.
*
The sun was high up in the sky the next day. The air was humid and sweltering, numerous flies buzzing around lazily. Not many were outside in this weather, most preferring the coolness of their homes or a chance to spend the afternoon at the communal watering hole.

The two men sat on wooden chairs beneath the mango tree. The atmosphere was tense, each man sizing his opponent to try to find a weakness. The older man spoke first in a strong, commanding voice.

“Word has reached my ears that you’ve been seen with my daughter, corrupting her with talk of love and elopement. What do you have to say for yourself, boy?”

The younger man gulped audibly and shifted a little on his chair. “I really do love your daughter, Sir, and I am prepared to elope with her if this is the only way we can be together.”

“Love???” The other one sneered. “What do you know about love, little boy? Did you really think I would let my daughter marry a penniless laborer like you? Why do you look so shocked? Of course I know who you are.” By now his hands were clenched at his sides. He was getting pretty worked up. “What do you expect her to eat, this love you speak of?”

“I love your daughter, and I will fight for her no matter what,” he replied with false bravado. Truth was he was getting a bit scared. The girl’s father easily outweighed him by several kilos, and though he was fleet of foot, he knew that in a physical fight he would be beaten to within an inch of his life. In addition, there were rumors going round in the village of how this man dealt with opposition, that the people were never seen or heard from again. No one was around this far from the village and he deeply regretted coming here alone. Like the others, would he simply disappear?

“I hear them call you Loti. I’ve asked around about you and they tell me you are a poor man. Do you really think I would let you use my daughter to get rich?” He affected a sneer. “Or did you really think that she loved you? At most, this is just an infatuation for her, the experience of something new. It will pass. My daughter could never love someone like you.”

“If you really think so, then you don’t know your daughter as well as you think.”

“I’ve had enough of this foolishness. Listen and listen well. I will not let anything or anyone stand in the way of my daughter’s upcoming marriage. I hear that you will be going to the city soon. You will leave tonight and never come back. I will finance your trip and give you enough money to survive on for at least three months. You will say nothing to my daughter about this meeting or about leaving. This is a very generous offer on my part. I suggest you take it.”

“You can keep your money. Serah and I love each other, and nothing you say or do can keep us apart.”

The tree silently cheered him on.

“Well, then,” he said with a slight tightening of his jaw. “I guess there is nothing I can say to convince you otherwise, is there? By the way, how is your mother doing? I hear her leg is not healing as quickly as it should.”

At the mention of his mother, Loti’s face turned as white as a ghost. He did not fully understand what was going on, but he didn’t like this turn of conversation.

Serah’s father continued smoothly, “The opportunities in this village are few and going to the city means more work with better pay. It would be a shame if, for some reason, you lost your chance to go to the city. Do you really want to disappoint your mother like that?”

“How dare you!” Anger kept the sick dread and helplessness coiling at the pit of Loti’s stomach from rising up and chocking him. “I refuse to be threatened by you or anyone else, even if you are Serah’s father.” He took a step to leave.

“If you walk out on me, boy, I can personally guarantee that you will never go to the city. And if I ever see you or hear about you with my daughter again, I will make it my life’s mission to frustrate you at every turn. Mark my words.”

It wasn’t so much the words that had been used but the tone in which they had been delivered that left no doubt in Loti’s mind that he meant every word. He didn’t look back as he walked away.

Very soon, a rumor started circulating in the village that Loti had been found with stolen yams in his hut. For Loti, it wasn’t difficult for to know who had started that rumor. What worried him was that people believed it and were not giving him work anymore. It made life very difficult for him as he needed what little money he could get every day to take care of himself and his ailing mother.

If only he had the money to get to the city.

Right now, the future seemed bleak indeed. He was miserable. He had not seen or heard from Serah in over a week. Every day he would go to their meeting place and wait for her, but she never showed. Every day, her wedding day grew closer. He didn’t think he could stand to see her as someone else’s wife. Sometimes he got angry at her. How could she just keep silent like that? Didn’t she love him? Didn’t she think he would worry about her, think about her, and want to see her? Didn’t she care about his feelings at all?

She was heartbroken. Loti, the man she loved and thought loved her back, had betrayed her. Loti had only been after her for money and financial gain. She had seen him with her father and heard from people she trusted that he had requested a meeting with Serah’s father to ask for money and assurance of a job in the city or he would make sure that Serah’s upcoming nuptials would never happen. He had gloated over the fact that Serah thought he was in love with her, calling her naïve and gullible. She lived in a kind of numbness for the next several days. All she could think of was that he’d been right. She was gullible and he had been so good at pretending that he loved her. She had fallen for it.

*

“What troubles you, my son?”

His mother’s voice brought him out of his trancelike state. He had been staring at the mud wall of the hut for a long time. His thoughts were pinging around in his head, with no concrete solution making itself known.

He looked at her, feeling guilty for getting lost in his blank canvas mind yet again. It was dimly lit inside the hut, but he could see where his mother lay on a mat on the ground, hardly moving due to her bad leg. There was a cup of water and a bowl of stew that he had prepared for lunch within reaching distance.

He moved a bit closer to her.

“It’s nothing, mother,” he said, baring his teeth in the semblance of a smile. “Just rest and don’t worry about a thing. You need to heal.”

“How can you expect me not to worry when I can clearly see all is not well with you?”

“Mama Rumi told me what the villagers are saying about you, son. I’m so sorry. I just don’t understand why Wangige would let such a horrible lie continue.”

“It’s okay, mama. It will die down soon. You’ll see.”

“Is it true that the villagers are now refusing to give you any work?” The look on his face must have said it all because she didn’t wait for his answer. “It just makes me so mad. No matter. Go, under my bed, there is a satchel. Bring it to me.”

Loti was a little baffled by the change in conversation but went to do as he was told. He set the satchel down beside her and watched his mother rummage inside. After a few minutes, her hand emerged clutching a fairly thick brown envelope. She handed it to him without a word.

He was almost afraid to know what was contained within, but nothing could have prepared him for this. He was shocked beyond belief to see several stacks of money neatly arranged. He didn’t know what to think. He looked at the money, then at his mother, then back to the money.

“You don’t have to look so shocked. I’ve been keeping some money away whenever I can, and as you can see, I’ve saved up quite a lot over the years. Take it, it’s yours.”

“I can’t take it,” he said as he tried to hand the money back to her. Did she even know what she was saying? “This is your money and-”

“Loti, listen to me. I want you to take this money and go to the city. Build a new life there. Get married, have children and then come back to me.”

His mother didn’t know about Serah, so she had no idea about the pain that almost doubled him over at the thought of going away from her, even if it was necessary. I’ll come back for you, Serah. I promise.

His mother mistook his hesitation for worry and rushed to reassure him. “Don’t worry about me. My friends will care for me till I heal. You must leave quickly.”

The following morning, while it was still dark, at the time when he and Serah usually met, Loti left the village.
*
On another morning such as that one a few days later, she walked to the mango tree alone. Her shoulders were hunched over and her steps were sluggish and unfocused. She looked beaten.

What was the point, she thought. Everyone has deserted me. Loti, he who claimed to love me, has left me. I might as well be dead.

She sat under the tree for a long time lost in her thoughts. Suddenly, like a puppet whose strings had just been pulled, she stood up jerkily and looked up at the tree. A rope, previously hidden when she had sat on it, dangled from the fingers of her right hand. Very slowly, she climbed up the tree and fastened the rope on a sturdy branch. She then tied a head-sized knot on the rope and stepped down. The tree could only watch in dawning horror at what was about to happen.

Once more, she climbed up the tree and loped the knot around her head.

Today my husband comes for me, she thought. I wonder how much he likes corpses.

Serah’s high pitched maniacal laughter pierced the early morning silence for a few minutes before it was abruptly cut off.

The funeral procession passed steadily along beneath the mango tree. No one saw the young man who stood in the shadow of the tree, too broken to feel anything. They never saw him again.

For generations, the story was told of forbidden love and death, and of how, immediately after these events, the mango tree’s fruits became bitter.

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