A slight wind was blowing. The deep green leaves of the lone tree swayed gently. It already promised to be a great day.
The land was dry and arid, seemingly untouched. Over the horizon, the sun was just making its first appearance of the day, the reddish- yellow rays spreading like tendrils on the ground. The first rays felt good on the chilled leaves of the tree. This was the best time of the day, when the coldness of the night was replaced by the warmth of day.
The village stood to the right of the tree some distance away. To the left was the communal shamba. One could see the tilled land and the rows upon rows of maize that had been planted in preparation for the seasonal rains. That had been done months before. Rain was scarce in these parts. When it did rain it was never enough for the villagers to reap a bountiful harvest. The tree had watched as the villagers toiled and dug into the shallow soil, planting their seeds with hope in their hearts. It had watched as they had performed dirges and chants to their deities asking for rain. It had watched as, when all else failed, the people had wandered home dejected. That had been the case for many seasons and the villagers had learned how to survive on the little food there was. Most of them engaged in barter trade with the neighbouring villages. The women were skilled weavers while the men were hunters. This kept most families fed and clothed and also took care of the less fortunate ones. It was the way of the community.
The mango tree’s musings were interrupted when it heard the loud cock-a-doodle-doo that was always a sign of the birth of a new day for the villagers every day like clockwork. At this time, not many people would venture out of their huts, most of them too busy with the mundane tasks of making breakfast, washing up and getting ready for the day. This was also the time when someone came to the tree for a quiet moment to think, sometimes to watch the sunrise, and other times for clandestine meetings and such. Children sometimes came to pick fruit from the branches. The tree was where everyone, in one form or another gathered and let their guard down. The tree had seen and heard its fair share of good and nefarious acts happening between its shadows and knew a great deal about the villagers. More than they would be comfortable with, for sure.
A boy was walking up the narrow path leading from the village to the tree. He was a thin, pale waif of a child. His brown pair of shorts was threadbare and torn at the hip, hem and along the waistband. Even in the morning chill, he was not wearing a shirt. The small chest was bare and exposed to the elements, his little ribs showing through skin that appeared too thin. The boy walked with a slow and unhurried gait, akin to an old man walking with a cane. It seemed like a joke, especially since a little boy was much more likely to be seen skipping around as a result of the excess energy all children seemed to have.
The boy stopped beneath the tree and looked up with eyes that were shadowed and held no childlike innocence in them. Eyes that had seen too much of the evil nature of humanity and had learned to accept it. His face was sunken, his eyes almost lost among the planes and angles of his face, his skin looking pasty and paper thin, his lips cracked. For a long time, the boy just stared up at the tree, saying nothing and remaining motionless. Then, as if a string had been pulled, he wrapped his arms around the big trunk of the tree and started crying in earnest. Great, big gulping sobs that shook his light frame and came from deep down in his heart.
It was heartbreaking to watch and listen to. Yes, it knew it was a tree, but there was such a wealth of emotion displayed that even a stone would be moved.
The boy’s name was Boni and he lived with his uncle, who was the village chief, and his family. The boy’s parents had died of a snake bite in their sleep a few years ago. He had been nine or so. Back then he had been a happy little boy. Full of life, with eyes that sparkled and a ready smile. He had been a frequent visitor to the tree even then, coming with other boys as they looked for mangoes. When his parents passed on, his sadness had caused his natural light to be snuffed out.
In private, they made the boy sleep in the barn with the animals, on a tiny wooden cot that barely fit his frame. They gave him only a thin, old sheet to cover himself with at night, regardless of how cold it got. They made the boy work for his food, making him do most of the chores in the house. Even after all that, they denied him food many times because of some imaginary streak of dust the wife had ‘seen’ or some unnamed mistake only they knew about. The chief’s son, though around the same age as his cousin, was encouraged not to talk or even acknowledge his presence in public.
Under all this strain, the boy grew increasingly haggard. Those who inquired after him were told that he was still grieving. No one knew the truth because the chief and his family would pretend to really care about the boy if someone was watching.
The boy had stopped crying for the most part. The occasional sniffle and involuntary hiccup could still be heard as if the boy’s body hadn’t yet released all the pent up emotion. He slid down the tree and sat on the ground, his back resting against the bark. For a moment, all was quiet again. It seemed loud after the turmoil of a few minutes ago. Gradually, the usual morning sounds started trickling in: – the song of an early bird, the rustle in the underbrush as various living creatures scurried around looking for their first meal of day, the sound of the wind blowing through the leaves. Such peace didn’t last for long.
After some time the boy stood and looked up the tree again. He squared his shoulders and grabbed the trunk, his intent clear. Whenever he could, he liked to climb the tree and look for mangoes. That was usually his only source of sustenance whenever he was given no food. No one knew about it, he was very careful.
On this day, however, following the crying jag that weakened him even farther, Boni could not find the strength to pull his weight up the tree. He tried for a few times before he grew frustrated and sat back down again. The tree watched as he drew his knees up to his chest, put his arms around them and dropped his head on top of his knees, the picture of hopelessness and misery.
With a little nudge from the tree, a fully ripe mango fell from the tee and landed near Boni’s feet. He looked at it for a moment before he cautiously picked it up and bit into it. A smile appeared on his lips as a thin trail of juice trickled down his chin. It was the first thing he had eaten in two days and it tasted like heaven. The tree watched on indulgently, as the boy ravenously ate the mango, skin and all. It made another mango fall and watched as the boy’s joy increased.
It was all the thanks the tree needed.