The Nestbury Tree
By Ayodele Morocco-Clarke (Nigeria)
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Now, this was a church my parents had built and the Nestbury tree was a tree my grandfather had planted as soon as he bought the property. He had brought the Nesbury sapling with him from Kingston in Jamaica when he migrated to Lagos. It had been his most precious possession and he had guarded it diligently. That tree had been in the yard before my mother married my father. In fact, it was older than mother herself and was a defining mark in our whole area.
My grandfather was long dead before the Shepherd made his pronouncement about the Nestbury tree, and so was my father. Actually, neither of them had known the Shepherd before they died, which I think was extremely lucky for him as Grandpa had had a ferocious reputation which preceded him all over the country. Rumours have it that some people surreptitiously referred to him as “the mad foreigner.”
I really believe that if Grandpa had been alive, the Shepherd would not have dared utter those ridiculous words and if he had done so, he would probably have been dining with his ancestors in heaven or in hell not long after. That is how much my Grandpa loved his Nestbury tree. Daddy had told me years ago that Grandpa had had one of the gardeners whipped to within an inch of his life for daring to “trim” the branches of the tree without his authorisation and he had almost shot some thieving neighbourhood kids who had sneaked in to steal fruit from the tree. Nobody messed with the Nestbury tree and everyone in the community knew this golden rule.
Grandpa had obviously instilled his great love for his Nestbury tree in my mother because she guarded it almost as jealously as he had. She swore that it was the only tree of its kind in the whole country and to this very day I believe her because in all my sojourns throughout Nigeria, I have never seen another tree like it.
Mum took great pride in the Nestbury tree as one would a unique and gifted child. I often wondered how she would have felt towards the tree had she been the one who brought it all the way from Jamaica.
The pronouncement made by the Shepherd followed by the death sentence he passed on the tree seemed to unleash a demon in Mum when she learned of it.
She stormed over to the church and started yelling that it was only going to be over her dead body that anyone would cut down the Nestbury tree. The Shepherd just looked on unperturbed and told her that whether she liked it or not the tree was going to come down. He reiterated his opinion that the tree was used by witches as a meeting place and that this could clearly be seen by anyone as there were always bats hanging around the tree.
“You are a good-for-nothing illiterate who knows nothing about plants or animals,” Mum shouted. “I want this church out of my compound as soon as possible. When my husband and I built this church many years ago, we did not intend to be stabbed in the back by a conniving bunch of idle traitors.”
“You are a witch,” taunted the Shepherd. “That’s why you don’t want us to cut the tree down. You and your coven meet there every night and now that we know your secret, you want to hide under the umbrella of plants and animals.”
I stared aghast at the Shepherd while he uttered those terrible words to Mum. In all my life, I had never heard anyone speak so rudely or disdainfully to her. Mum looked like she was going to explode. But remarkably, she sucked in her breath and calmly told the Shepherd that she would be getting in touch with the church headquarters to have him removed from her property.
“I have seen off bigger and better men than you. You are definitely no match for me,” she concluded and turned on her heels gesturing me to follow.
“Afefe ti fe furo adie ti wa nita,” (the wind has blown and we can see the fowl’s bottom), the Shepherd continued to taunt at her retreating back in Yoruba. I felt like slapping his stupid smirking face.
Thus began the battle between my mother in one corner and the church, led by the Shepherd in the other.
The day after the confrontation between my mother and the Shepherd, a group of seven members from the church came to the house. They were known as the Church Elders Committee and were led by the Elder Ojo who was the chairman. I went to open the front door when they rang the bell and Elder Ojo asked to see Mum. I made them wait outside while I went to ask her if she wanted to see them. Experience had taught me not to let anyone in without obtaining prior approval from my mother. Mum was not happy to hear that the church elders had come to see her. She was still sour from her encounter with the Shepherd, but told me to let them in.
I returned to the front door and ushered them all into the receiving hall. Mum made them wait about ten minutes before she went to meet them.
“Ekaale, Ma,” chorused the elders in Yoruba. My ear was planted firmly to the door leading to the hall. “Good Evening,” Mum replied.
Speaking up, the Chairman addressed Mum in Yoruba. Apparently he had stood up because I heard Mum ask him to sit down. “We are here because we were informed of the altercation that occurred between you and the Shepherd yesterday evening.”
“What about it?” Mum interjected testily.
“We think that it is bad that things got out of hand yesterday and we are convinced that the disagreement only happened because there was no elder on hand to bring the situation under control,” the Chairman continued. “The Shepherd had no right to call you a witch and he has been admonished.”
“That is not good enough,” Mum shouted. “I want him off my property, and if you people do not agree, you can all go with him. I have telephoned the Pastor at the church headquarters, and he is sending a representative here before the end of the week.”
“But Ma, you shouldn’t have taken such drastic action before informing the Committee,” the Chairman protested, to which I heard murmurs of approval.
“It’s my church, and I can do whatever I please,” Mum snapped in English. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit around idle while some nincompoop calls me a witch. What has my Nestbury tree done to him that he wants to destroy it?”
“But Ma,” another voice said. I was not sure who it was, though I thought the voice belonged to Elder Abiodun, a man who did not like Mum one little bit. “That tree is not a good tree. It is evil, and at night you can see strange birds flying around it. They don’t go to any other tree, only that one. Moreover, strange noises always come from the tree at night.”
“Bats,” spat Mum. “Bats live in that tree, that is why you hear noise around the tree, and they are the so-called “strange birds” you say fly around the tree. Anyway, I don’t care what any of you say. That tree is staying, and if you people don’t like it you can all go to hell.”
I heard a collective gasp from the elders. I scrambled to my feet and quickly moved away from the door because I knew that with that blasphemous pronouncement, the meeting would end soon, and I did not want to be caught eavesdropping.
A few minutes later, the door to the hall opened and the elders filed out. I opened the front door and bade them goodnight with a smirk on my face, knowing that my mother was not going to be cowed on the matter.
Two days after the elders came to the house, the Pastor’s representative came to the house to see my mum. He said he decided to come to the house before proceeding to the church, as the pastor had told him to hold peace talks with my mother and the Shepherd. He said he had also been told to deliver a sermon on unity, and that was why he had not come earlier, as he wanted to deliver the sermon at the Sunday service when there would be a full congregation to hear the message.
Mum was unhappy with this news. She was incensed. When she had spoken to the pastor, she had made it clear that she wanted the Shepherd off her property, and that she was not interested in any conciliatory talks. She wasted no time in telling the Pastor’s representative this. He was quick to placate her, quoting passages from the Scripture and telling her that as the matron of the church, she was supposed to be slow to anger and quick to forgive.
His words must have touched a chord deep inside her, because after some further persuasion, Mum allowed herself to be cajoled into attending the church service that morning. This was an achievement on the part of the pastor’s representative, as Mum had previously sworn that she would not set foot inside the church until that upstart of a Shepherd was gone.
I was not going to miss out on the action so I went to put on my church gear whilst Mum got ready for church. In no time, we set off for the church through the back door of the house with the pastor’s representative in tow. The church was fenced off from the compound to give us some privacy. However, we had a private entrance from the compound leading directly to the front of the church which Mum had kept locked since the day she fell out with the Shepherd. She did not want anyone sneaking into the compound to cut down the Nestbury tree.
The service had already begun when we got to the church, and a hush fell over the congregation as we entered. I could see some people craning their necks to see who was with Mum, and others beginning to whisper amongst themselves. They had all heard about the altercation between Mum and the Shepherd, and thought that there was going to be a showdown.
Mum proceeded to her special matron’s seat while the representative of the pastor went up to take a seat at the church altar. I blended in with the people who were sitting towards the back. From my seat, I could see Elder Abiodun frowning and fidgeting in his seat. Nobody knew that the pastor’s representative was on a peace mission, and people continued to whisper to one another. I even overheard two women predicting that the Shepherd was not going to last the night at the parish.
Upon seeing the pastor’s representative, the Shepherd looked nervous and quite agitated. At that moment, I cursed the pastor for advocating peace and unity. He should have done away with the Shepherd instead of playing the peacemaker.
The service proceeded as normal with hymns and prayers. After the second reading of the Bible, it was time for the sermon, and the pastor’s representative gestured to the Shepherd that the sermon was going to be delivered by him and not the person originally scheduled to do so.
Stepping up to the pulpit, he proceeded to talk about Christianity and the concept of brotherhood. “It is not uncommon for people have clashes with other people, what matters is that at the end of it, they come out stronger and united. We all have to learn to be tolerant of one another as we are one in Christ. We must be our brother’s keeper, slow to anger and quick to forgive. If someone offends you, call him and tell him where he has gone wrong. Please do not bear a grudge. Love your neighbour as you do yourself.”
Asking the congregation to get to its feet, the pastor’s representative proceeded to sing a hymn in the middle of the sermon:
Let there be love shared among us
Let there be love in our heart
May now your love sweep this nation
Cause us O Lord to arise
Give us a fresh understanding
Of brotherly love that is real
Let there be love shared among us
Let there be love.
He concluded by saying that God was the creator of all things, and if the Lord was not happy with anything, he will in his divine wisdom take care of that thing. He said that if anyone felt that they were being oppressed by evil forces, they should take it to the Lord in prayer, and they would be surprised that God does actually answer prayers.
Unfortunately, the pastor’s representative did not know that he had unwittingly sowed a seed that was to germinate in the Shepherd’s mind. His words were to form the basis for the Shepherd to launch a stinging attack on the Nestbury tree, and by extension, my mother.
A couple of days after the representative’s sermon, word came to Mum that the Shepherd had told the congregation that there was to be a night vigil which was to run for seven days at the church premises starting on Friday night. The aim of the vigil was to bring the Nestbury tree down. The vigil was to be done “Jericho style”; the people would gather and march round the Nestbury tree singing, chanting and praying that the tree would fall down the way the walls of Jericho had in the Bible after the Israelites laid siege on the city of Jericho.
Mum was not pleased about this latest development. It annoyed her no end that the Shepherd had acted like a hypocrite and pretended that the issue with the tree was well and truly over. I on the other hand thought that the Shepherd had finally lost the plot. He seemed so obsessed with the tree that he had lost all sense of reasoning. I immediately saw a massive flaw with the Shepherd’s vigil plan because Mum had taken to locking the private entrance leading from the compound to the church, and there was no means for the congregation to actually march round the Nestbury tree since they did not have access to it anymore.
However, a minor technicality like the lack of access to the tree was not going to deter the Shepherd. He decided that they would hold a modified version of the Jericho style vigil. According to his revised plan, the congregation would gather by the church fence at the spot nearest to the tree. Once there, they were to point their fingers, and direct their prayers and chants at the tree. This was to be done daily from 12 midnight till 6am for seven days. He informed them that if they kept vigil diligently and performed their prayers with faith and conviction, the evil tree would fall down like the walls of Jericho did.
I was amused when I heard this, but Mum was not. She looked more than a little perturbed. I thought that the Shepherd had finally taken leave of his senses and I was determined to avoid a situation where he or his cohorts would sneak into the compound while everyone was asleep at night to cut down the tree. I informed Adamu, the security guard to keep a vigilant eye on the Nestbury tree and the entire area leading to the church. He was under instructions to shoot any intruders he found in the leg.
On Friday night, we were in the house when we heard the vigil begin at midnight. I could not help laughing as I thought that there were many gullible people who were depriving themselves of much needed sleep in pursuit of an elusive goal. It just showed how easily led people could be and how blindly they will follow a person on religious or supernatural grounds.
The vigil continued for seven days. The pattern was the same; chanting, singing and praying. For every one of those seven days, I woke up early in the morning and went to check that nothing had happened to the tree. Mum did the same. By the sixth day, I was already smug with thoughts of victory thinking of ways in which I would ridicule the deluded Shepherd. I kept wondering why the church members were bothering to waste their time coming for the vigil when it was apparent that nothing could happen to the tree. I could not for the life of me fathom how the Shepherd hoped to accomplish his goal on this last day in light of the fact that all his past efforts had proved abortive.
On Thursday night, I sat with Mum in the living room and watched the news like we did every night. It had been a beautiful day and the weatherman said the good weather was going to continue over the weekend with less than five percent risk of precipitation. Earlier in the day, word had come to Mum that at the mid-week service the night before, the Shepherd had told the congregation that the vigil on Thursday night was to start at 9pm and carry on through out the night until daybreak. I felt this was his last desperate bid to secure the downfall of the Nestbury tree. Predicting his failure, I wondered what he would say to the tired idiots who had shunned their cosy beds in favour of waging a war against a tree.
I went to bed against the now familiar backdrop of chanting, singing and praying which had become the norm over the last six days. On this night however, the chants and prayers were louder and sounded much more ferocious. I snuggled up in bed and eventually fell asleep.
I came awake startled. There was no power supply, the wind was howling crazily outside and there was a terrible storm raging. I could hear things being flung about outside and some doors or windows that had no locks slamming shut repeatedly. At intermittent periods, I saw flashes of lightning followed closely by terrible bursts of deafening thunder.
I peeked out of my window and could make out the shapes of the dogs huddled together on the piazza. Whenever there was a streak of lightening, I could see them clearly for a split second. A few of them were howling piteously.
Not for the first time, I cursed the incompetent Nigerian Meteorological Service. It was less than five hours since the dumb weatherman had said the weather was going to be beautiful. This was almost as bad as the blunder Michael Fish made in England all those years ago.
Settling back into bed, I tried to fall asleep. My ears however picked up a strange noise. It was not the rain and though it sounded akin to a rumble, it was not thunder. Incredulously, I realised what the sound was. It was the chanting of the church members. They were roaring with prayers. I could faintly hear the clapping of many hands as well as what seemed to be the stamping of a great number of feet, and I could not believe that anyone would be out in this appalling weather.
At that point, it finally dawned on me how powerful a weapon religion was. This was fanaticism at its worst. I fell into a deep but troubled sleep, only to be woken less than an hour later. Once again, I woke up startled. This time however, what made me wake up was a mighty crash, which made caused my bed to vibrate. I could feel the earth shake beneath me, making me wonder if the house was collapsing. I dashed out of my room and almost collided with Mum in the corridor. The loud crash had woken her as well. As there was still no power supply, we lit some candles and together we walked from one room to another, ensuring that everything was in order and that nothing was damaged.
Neither Mum nor I could go back to sleep after that. We stayed awake and sat in the lounge speculating about what might have caused the loud bang and made the earth to vibrate so violently. I came up with some earthquake theories, citing ground movements in California and Mexico to buttress my point. I kept telling Mum that we needed to flee the house because it might disappear into some crevice soon and she kept retorting “Don’t be silly” or “Don’t be daft,” saying we were safer indoors than we would be outside in the storm. After a while, I gave up and shut up. I could see that Mum was worried and more than once, I wondered if I should be worried too.
The storm abated about forty-five minutes later and not long afterwards, we could see the nimble but tentative fingers of dawn stealthily snaking across the sky. The dogs had long stopped howling and everywhere seemed eerily quiet, like a deserted battlefield. The silence was broken by a cock crowing, followed by another, then another.
Mum told me to go and get the two hurricane kerosene lanterns we kept in the pantry. When I brought them to her, she lit both of them, passed one back to me and ordered me to follow her. We were going on an inspection tour of the whole compound to determine the extent of damage the storm might have wrought.
We exited from the front entrance of the house and made our way towards the western-most part of the compound with the lanterns boosting the visibility that was available from the poor natural light of the daybreak. The compound looked like a mini-war zone. There was chaos everywhere, with debris strewn wherever our eyes touched. Many of the trees had been stripped of most of their fruit and leaves, and there were mangoes, paw paws, almonds, oranges, avocado pears and a few coconuts lying on the ground in disarray. The banana and plantain plants had collapsed under the barrage of the wind and heavy rain with their fruits lying limply on the ground. The corrugated roofing sheets which had been stacked neatly next to the security-guard’s outpost were all over the place, grotesquely bent and twisted out of shape. My eyes took in the scene of disarray, before coming to settle on a gap in the fence next to the front gate where the wall had collapsed.
By this time, the dogs had run up to us, their tails wagging gleefully. I did not share their morning enthusiasm and tried to shoo them away from the fence, to prevent them from running out of the compound. Mum had been strangely quiet all this while and I wondered what could have been running through her head. Together, we gathered a few of the roofing sheets strewn about and tried to make a temporary barrier to cover the gap in the fence. We secured them with some of the large mortars and blocks from the collapsed fence.
When we were through, it was already light and Mum said that we needed to take a look at the rest of the compound. We walked along the side of the house, bearing northwards. Everywhere we looked, there was debris.
Cutting sharply round the utilities wing of the house, Mum abruptly came to a halt, causing me to run into her back. I heard her sharp intake of breath and tried to peer past her to see what had made her stop so suddenly. The sight that greeted my eyes was unbelievable. Where I had thought there had been chaos up front, mayhem greeted us at the back of the compound. But all these paled into insignificance at the sight of the Nestbury tree lying full length on the ground, completely uprooted, with the topmost point of the tree less than two feet from the house. If the tree had been a human being, I would have said that it lay spread-eagled on the ground. Paradoxically, it looked quite resplendent in the midst of the debris, as if it had decided to take a little nap after standing in all its glory for so many years.
Fascinated, I moved over closer to the Nestbury tree and tried to inspect the exposed roots. It had been uprooted like a seedling in a nursery. I had never seen anything like it in all my fifteen years on earth. Realisation dawned on me that this must have been responsible for what I had earlier speculated to be an earthquake.
There was a strange moaning noise emanating from Mum as she knelt beside the crown of the fallen tree. She looked as if she had been pole-axed. Never had I allowed myself to entertain the thought that the Nestbury tree would end up like this.
I had never seen Mum cry like she did that morning. Great big wracking sobs that shook her ample frame. The tears ran down her cheeks in torrents and looked for a while like the Nigerian map showing the Niger and Benue rivers running separately before merging in a confluence on her chin and finally dribbling off to the ground.
Mum’s tears seemed bizarre to me, as I had always known her to be tough, strong and a pillar to be relied on when a person was in distress. Now she was apparently in distress herself. She cried like she had lost one of her children. I guess the tree had been a kind of offspring to her, but the way she carried on was reminiscent of the weeks following my father’s death.
I became absorbed with trying to work out how the Shepherd had accomplished the impossible, and I was surprised when I felt Mum’s hand grasping my elbow. Her eyes were red and swollen, making her look like she had developed a sudden attack of conjunctivitis. When she suggested that we proceed indoors, her voice sounded hoarse; rasping. In less than one hour, she seemed to have aged several years. Oddly, she stooped as she walked, leaning heavily on my arm and causing me on more than one occasion to stagger.
Once inside the house, Mum went to her room and immediately took to her bed. This was very unusual, as she could never be caught in bed once the sun was up. She gave me strict instructions that she did not want to be disturbed by anyone. Under no circumstances was I to let any visitor into the house.
Mum stayed in bed all day, refusing to come out of her room despite my pleas. All efforts to cajole her to eat some food failed. At intermittent intervals, I heard mutterings and sobbing coming from her room.
By nightfall, I felt helpless and made a resolve to go early the next morning to see Mum’s brother, Uncle Jacob, to intimate him of the day’s event.
Very early the next morning, I went to Mum’s room to find out if she was feeling better. I knocked a few times, but did not hear her call out to me to enter. Afraid that she might snap at me if I woke her up, I retreated to my room to get ready to go to Uncle Jacob’s house.
I took a shower and after dressing up, I went back to Mum’s room to inform her that I was going out. Again, I knocked on her door and still she did not answer, so I eased the door open.
She was lying in bed asleep.
“Mum, I’m going to Uncle Jacob’s,” I said. There was no reply. I thought this was strange, as she was such a light sleeper.
“Mum,” I called.
“Mum?” I went to open the drapes. Yet she slept on. With the first few rays of the early morning sun now streaming into the bedroom, I turned to my mother on the bed. There was a knot of anxiety growing at the bottom of my belly as I tentatively reached out my hand to shake her gently.
“Mum, Mum,” I called again very softly, almost whispering. Still she remained unmoving.
“Mum?” By now, I was shaking her almost vigorously, my voice trembling as I called her with urgency, trying to quell the rising hysteria that threatened to overwhelm me.
“Mum, MUM, Mummmmmmmmm,” I screamed, clawing at her desperately, tears streaming down my face.
I could hear a high pitched ululating noise escaping from somewhere in the house and did not realise that it came from me. I continued screaming even after strong arms pried me away from my mother’s dead body.