No one knows why people started to turn into trees, but everyone remembers the first. It was a baby in Japan, a girl, and no one knows if she turned in her mother’s womb or a moment after her introduction to this harsh world. Her name was meant to be Yumi Murakami, and she was born a sakura seedling.
It wasn’t the same for everyone. Baba Iyalla’s wife woke to a sapling one morning. A neighbour, Little Farah, erupted into an iroko tree inside a closet during a game of hide and seek. That house is abandoned now, half-collapsed supporting the weight of the tree. The trunk and branches spread far above the roof, drinking up the sun’s rays; the crumbling concrete persists in perpetual darkness. Little Farah’s eternal resting place.
My father turned in the middle of a sentence. My brother and I were fighting in the back seat over something characteristically stupid, and his stern voice started, ‘Temi. Andrew. Settle down before I—’ We never found out what he was going to do if we didn’t. The steering wheel rotated wildly, the minivan veering off course. I slammed into my brother who slammed into the window. My mother fought against the momentum and reached her hands to steady the steering wheel while one foot stretched across the divide to pump the brakes. The minivan skidded to a stop with an ungodly screech as part of its skin was scraped away by the concrete pillar of a bridge.
We froze in our unnatural positions as though in the middle of a game of Twister. My mother’s limbs stretched across both sides of the car, me in my brother’s lap, one hand somehow locked behind his head with the other pinned between our bodies. Then my mother looked down and saw the sapling, roots pulsing like dying bronchioles, and released the most anguished sound I’ve heard from anything –worse than when the neighbourhood cat found her kittens’ bloodied bodies in a trash can and wailed at our windows for weeks. Her breath came shallow, like an engine revving up. She reached down and cupped the small tree in her arms, cradling it like a deceased baby. My brother and I made no sound, our bodies still in shock, our minds enthralled by our mother’s pain.
We are in the minivan again, for the first time since it happened. My mother is driving. My brother is in the passenger’s seat, fingers drumming on his khakis. I’m in the middle aisle with our father. His makeshift pot – half of a sawed-off bucket – is held in place by the creative use of two seatbelts.
My mother drives slowly, as though she’s in a funeral procession, even if the road is empty. Maybe it’s because she hasn’t been in the driver’s seat since the incident or even left the house. I’m the one who goes to the market, hopping in and out of kekes, bikes, and danfos, embossed between sweaty people, lacquered with their scents like a preserved leaf. Or maybe it’s because we are driving through Tejuosho market. Even though it’s not the crawling bustle of people, vehicles and vendors pushing carts it once was. Every shop and shack is shuttered. A faded green umbrella tumbleweeds across the road, which is littered with trash and tornadoing polythene bags. A frangipani tree stands off the side of the road; its branches frown, and its roots cannot find purchase on the parched, cracked earth. Soon it will die.
We drive until we come to the mouth of Third Mainland Bridge. Armed men crowd it with spike strips and sandbag barricades.
‘Hide your father.’ My mother hisses without moving her lips, eyes wide in the rear-view mirror. I unbuckle my father, roll him under the back seat and throw my hoodie on the floor, kicking at it with one leg to ensure it covers everything while looking like it just accidentally fell off the chair – the rest of my body stays ramrod straight.
My mother rolls the car to a stop in front of the checkpoint.
‘Officer.’ My mother’s tone is bright but clipped. I hope they’ll perceive it as the normal tone of someone who is trying not to get shot or extorted or both.
‘Madaaaam.’ The man says with a wide smile, dragging out the last syllable with manufactured familiarity. Both of his hands are on the window. He’s wheedling a toothpick at the side of his mouth and rocking back and forth on his heels. His constructed congeniality is undercut by the camouflage vest with faded russet speckle and the pistol holstered at his hip.
‘Good day officer.’ My mother says, a quick smile pinching the sides of her eyes.
‘Army, actually.’ He taps a dark sliver on his vest that has ‘Lt. Usman’ on it. Army, police, they all bleed together these days.
‘Oh, sorry sir.’ My mother says at the same time he flicks his wrist and says, ‘It’s all right.’
‘Where are you headed?’
‘Oh, just around. My children and I haven’t left our estate in months. Thought it would be good to get some fresh air.’
Lt. Usman nods. ‘Yes, I can imagine. If I had to stay inside all the time, I would probably eat my gun’, he says, patting his holstered weapon, the wide smile on his face never breaking.
The moment stretches taut. My mother isn’t sure how to respond to the silence.
He swats it away with a lazy hand. ‘Anyway. Step out of the vehicle.’
My mother undoes her seat belt slowly and turns to Andrew and me. ‘Okay, just step out of the vehicle.’
It takes Andrew two tries to undo his seatbelt with his shaky hands. I take a deep breath to expand my chest and give my heart space to hammer away before sliding out.
‘Turn and face the car’, Lt. Usman commands.
We put our hands against the car, and soldiers sand us down, searching for any seedlings or foliage we may be hiding on our person. They toss and turn us about, raise our sleeves and the hems of our trousers and shirts, checking for tattoos, anything that may identify us as Children of Gaea. I resist the urge to gag at their days-old scent of gin and sweat.
I look anywhere but at their taut faces, eyes zipping from their faded uniforms and chests bulked by hidden bulletproof vests to the guns dangling off their shoulders on straps, snouts aimed at the sky, duct-taped butts reflecting the sheen of the morning sun.
They make us kick our feet out and hold them up to make sure we haven’t cut the soles of our shoes off so our feet can remain in constant, surreptitious contact with the earth. Then they make us take off our shoes. Mother made sure we all wore sneakers and socks today so we would be above suspicion. They bend Andrew’s Air Forces to see if they’re real leather or vegan. He lets out a strangled cry, worried they’ll crease, then gulps it down when the soldiers raise an eyebrow at him.
‘Open the boot for us madam’, Lt. Usman says.
My mother pushes a button on the car key. Lt. Usman nods at a soldier with an angular face and angry blood vessels colonizing the whites of his eyes. The soldier goes round and lifts the hood up, poking through the boot with the butt of his rifle, then slams it shut, a loud pop that almost sends my heart out of my ribcage. Then he opens the front door. A bubble of breath catches in my throat when he wrenches the back door open, but he doesn’t even seem to look down, glancing inside for the matter of a blink then closing the door.
He shakes his head at Lt. Usman who finally says, ‘Okay. You’re free to go.’
We put on our shoes and climb back into our car. ‘Sorry for the inconvenience. Protocols’, he says, and you could almost pretend he means it.
‘No problem at all, sir. We understand.’ My mother starts the car.
He puts his hands on the half-open window blade, holding the car in place. The smile is still on his face. ‘If you see any suspicious activity, those nuisances that call themselves Geites or Children of whatever, call the hotlines. You know the hotline number, abi?’
My mother gives a severe nod. ‘Yes sir.’
There’s silence. His expression is open. He flicks a hand in the air. It takes my mother a moment to realise he’s inviting her to repeat it to him.
My mother’s hands tighten on the steering wheel. ‘0811116.’
Lt. Usman turns expectantly to Andrew. ‘0811116’, he sputters.
Then to me. Bile lavas in my throat. ‘0811116’, I parrot. A stupid toll number for a stupid purpose.
Lt. Usman beams. ‘Good.’ He takes his hands off the window and steps back. ‘Una take care. Make we no catch you for road after 6pm’, he chuckles, waving us off.
My mother offers one more unnatural smile before we drive off.
The bolts of the bridge rattle and clunk under the tires. The lagoon looks clearer than I’ve ever seen it. Barges of bladderwort have replaced clumps of trash. In Makoko, a mangrove tree stilts above the water.
We get off the bridge before it feels safe to speak.
‘Those checkpoints are so stupid. As if Geites would be caught in a gas-guzzling, earth-poisoning machine like this one’, Andrew says. He torques his neck, his fingers tapping a thousand beats a minute on his lap. ‘I don’t know why they bother. As if their oga isn’t in some grove in Aso Rock.’
I stand Father upright, smoothing his leaves and picking lint off his spines, but leave him on the floor of the car where he can be out of sight. ‘That’s just a rumour’, I say, more out of a conditioned reflex of disagreeing with him than belief.
He cranes his neck to look at me. ‘Oh yeah? Well then, tell me why we went from presidential addresses thrice a week to nothing for the past two months?’
I shrug. ‘The old man’s tired abeg. It’s not like anybody is actually listening to him.’
Andrew laughs. ‘As in.’
‘Maybe we should turn back’, my mother whispers, kneading the webbing between her thumbs and forefingers on the steering wheel.
I meet Andrew’s eyes in the side mirror. His eyebrows are knit in concern. We let the wind whip her words out the window unacknowledged. That’s not an option.
‘The remains must be incinerated at the appropriate centres’, the president had warbled in his pitchy accent on the television screen. ‘Failure to do so will result in heavy penalties.’
‘Turn that off’, my mother said without turning around, her voice hollowed and thinned by the small space between her lips and the couch.
I clicked off the television and with it the only source of light. Even if it was daytime, all the curtains were drawn, and the lights were off because light pierced my mother’s head and aggravated the migraines she’d been having since the incident.
The room was dim, but the outline of the tree was still clear on the dining table. Father was on a translucent plastic plate then. It had been a couple of weeks since the incident, and the tree was beginning to strain against the boundaries. That morning when I’d watered it, there were cracks rippling the plastic. He would need to be repotted, soon and discreetly.
The closest any of us had ever come to handling plants was sucking the liquid out of Ixora flowers on the neighbourhood bushes and taunting touch-me-not plants by brushing a finger over their leaves and watching them close. But we took secret shifts with the tree, watering and tending and guarding it in the sun when no one else was around. We each thought we were the only one tending to it. It was only when the leaves started to turn a sickly green that we frantically searched its symptoms on the internet together, silent tears streaming down Andrew’s face as the webpage snailed onto the screen, and we realised we’d been overwatering it and decided to create a timetable of care for it. That was still a few weeks down the line though. At that moment, in the living room, we weren’t talking about it, and I thought I was the only one worried about how we’d get a new pot for it without alerting anyone to the fact that instead of burning the remains, we’d kept them and were actively nurturing them.
In the first few months of the turning, scientists across the globe scrambled for answers, creating theories and hypotheses and watching them get destroyed almost instantly. One idea had arisen without any shred of scientific evidence and been debunked severally, but instead of dying, it spread its roots like devil weed. For there is nothing harder to kill than an intuitive bad idea in a time when people are starved of answers. The idea was that the turning was due to some contagion, and the ‘infected persons’, when turned, spread it, through pollen or photosynthesis or who knows – into the air. The only way to prevent this was to incinerate the ‘remains’ indoors, never in the open air if it could be avoided. Sometimes, if you slipped them a little something, the incinerators let you keep a handful of the mingled ashes of your loved one and whoever they’d burnt alongside them.
My brother and I spent our days listlessly. When we were first pulled out of school – I just beginning senior secondary school, he almost finishing it – we’d been restless, rocketing off the walls and getting into fights with each other over the slightest things because we had nothing better to do. We still have nothing better to do. We’re just quiet about it now.
These days Andrew likes to watch what can only be referred to as journalistic snuff. Violent, shaky cam footage taken by would-be journalists flooded the internet from every corner of the world, of anarchists and Children of Gaea camping out in front of government buildings or charging at government barricades and getting swatted down by bullets either way. New York. Hong Kong. Rio. Lagos.
My brother watched them obsessively, gnawing on the plastic bit of his hoodie drawstring or the zipper until they were mangled beyond function. He’d do this even at the dining table, elbows propped up, drool falling onto the cooled film on his achi soup. I’d look at Father, the centrepiece, who had never allowed phones at the table, and then at my mother, who alternated between staring at her food and a spot on the wall.
‘Mummy’, I said on one occasion, hating at once the nasal whistling quality of the words as they came out. ‘Andrew is watching those violent videos.’
My mother took a while to answer, chewing her ponmo daintily with minimal jaw movements before looking at me, her eyes filled with exasperation. ‘Everybody is scared, Temi.’
I turned, chastened, back to my food. She was right. Everyone was scared. There were stories of scientists who’d gone mad or worse, making crime scenes of their labs. Some still scratched away at a ‘cure’, but everyone had turned away from them.
The government feared a threat they could not contain or control, their slipping authority, the seeming inevitability of their extinction. The president of the Philippines had turned into a skinny katmon tree in the middle of a presidential address downplaying the phenomenon, hurtling the country into chaos and martial law.
The Children of Gaea were obviously scared. Their whole movement/religion was about fear. Fear that we’d messed up the planet so irrevocably that Mother Earth was now taking her revenge and would not stop until the last human had become the very thing we’d destroyed. Unlike everyone else, they leaned into that fear and the supposed positives of it. They renounced technology and most machinery to live a simple life, connected as much as possible to Mother Earth before she claimed them, before they ascended into her embrace.
In our house, we were also scared. Father was growing. On the dining table, his spiked trunk rose high, leaves umbrellaing out, curving against the chandelier. He was getting heavier to carry out each day and harder to hide from the neighbours whose windows overlooked our yard.
Finally, after driving through miles of empty road, past abandoned shopping malls and traffic lights that have gone mad with loneliness, we have arrived. Silence hisses through the car like a gas leak. Our darting eyes dare each other to make the first move.
We never visited the Lagos Arboretum and Botanical Gardens when it was open. It was something picture-perfect families did: lay wicker baskets and raffia mats on knolls and ate steaming jollof rice with antithetically cold coleslaw. That was never what we were. We were always loud and angry with each other, dominated by eternally shifting petty alliances. I cannot remember a single time that we were ever on the same page, ever anything more than an odd, jangled mess. At least then, there had been symmetry. Now the see-saw tilted viciously, and god help whoever found themselves on the low end of it.
I open the door and step out with Father. Mother and Andrew follow.
Gravel crunches underneath our shoes as we tread up to the large wooden doors, twice as tall as Andrew and large enough for two cars to pass side by side. The heavy wood is embossed with depictions of dense woodlands, flitting birds and a rising sun. Small humans running through all of it. A near-perfect image of the world to come. Closer, we can see that the wood weeps blood; streaks of sap run down the front and stain the gravel like a crime scene. Stocky rusted chains bind the handles of the gate and are secured with a padlock.
My mother slaps the door, then kicks it. Each strike punctuated by a loud ‘Damn it!’ On one strike her knuckle connects with the chain. She cradles her hand and screams at the sky.
Andrew and I flinch and share a look. We should be used to it by now; it’s been months, but her outbursts still shock us.
She straightens, shoulders rising high with her heavy breaths, collecting herself before turning to us. Her eyes are wide and glazed. ‘Well, that’s it. That’s it. We came and it’s locked.’ She headbands her hands over her locs. ‘So, let’s go. We tried.’
I hold my father closer to me and step off the gravel path and onto the patchy grass dotted with umbrella trees and long-leaved conifers. My mother seizes my forearm, holding me back.
‘I said let’s go’, she hisses, but there is no malice in her eyes. Just fear.
‘Go where? Home? We can’t grow a tree in our living room, Mummy. He’ll die cramped. Or what? We take him outside and hope no one notices and calls the incinerators? He’ll. Die. We cannot just give up.’ Her grip slackens, and I take off.
‘Temi’, Andrew calls after me. ‘What are you doing?’ He bounds after me as I run along the lawn.
‘We can’t be the only ones to have thought of this. I mean, it’s not rocket science to think that the best place to hide a tree is an arboretum.’ My hand pushes against the untended ivy; thorns and brambles nip at my palm.
Andrew realises what I’m doing and joins me in palpating the wall. Our mother trudges after us. My breath quickens when I find it. A gap in the wall, hidden by the ivy and behind a tree with a thicker trunk than the others, hiding it from the road. I hand my father to Andrew, put both hands against the ivy and widen the portal. I can see into the arboretum.
Andrew and I turn to each other, our eyes glassy. He hands me his backpack and squeezes in first, sideways. I wait for our mother to catch up and go in. Then I go in, loose bits of concrete grain my clothes; the brambles spurn loose threads from my shirt.
We step into a heavily wooded area, suffocated by trees on all sides. Branches interlock above us to block out the sun. The path ahead of us is only visible by virtue of pinpricks of light from gaps in the arborous roof. We pick our way through, stepping over fallen branches and logs. Birds caw and turn their heads curiously at us from the trees. After a bit, we come to a clearing with shin-high grass and nettles that bite us through our trousers. There’s a lake, probably artificial, reflecting the high trees behind us like a mirage and beyond that, a dirt road tufted with grass. On the other side of it, traveller’s palms rise.
I look left and right, unsure of where to go. I knew in theory that the arboretum was large, an Edenic enclave in a concrete jungle, but the road stretches endlessly with nothing but trees on both sides. My mother starts up the left path, and we follow her. The trees change as we walk, gaining wider trunks and branches. I shift the weight of my father’s pot from one arm to another, manoeuvring my face around the spiky trunk and drooping leaves.
‘Look’, Andrew says, tapping my shoulder and pointing to a high tree branch. ‘Monkeys.’ He has a lopsided grin on his face. It’s been a while since I saw it.
We cross a wooden bridge over a dark lake and tiptoe over a stilted wooden path for when the rains come and the earth floods. We pass a hanging tree with a thick horizontal branch from which hangs one rope of a swing; the other rope and the wooden plank lie on the floor. There are signs espousing the virtue of communing with nature and ones with little explainers about the various bird and animal species that can be found in the park – I pause to read the one about the water buffalo though the beast itself is nowhere to be found. Tree trunks are nailed with rusted plaques showing their botanical names and outdated ages:
Trees that lived before me and will outlive us all. The shrubs, ferns and cycads get their due too with signs erected in front of them.
‘Corythornis cristatus’, I say, bumping my shoulder against Andrew’s and nodding at the sky.
‘What?’ He asks, confused.
‘The bird from the sign we just passed.’
‘Ah I see it.’
We make a game of it, pointing out birds from signs we’ve passed, making up their names if we’ve forgotten them. Our mother is silent in front of us, her steps slow and languid, so unlike the person she used to be whose steps ate up the earth. Who couldn’t seem to walk fast enough, talk fast enough. We were all reversed and on mute compared to her.
We walk for what feels shorter than it probably is. This is the first time since the incident that we’ve all been outside together. We breathe in the crisp air and let the ambience lull us. We almost forget what we are here to do until we come to it.
Its branches touch the sky, silky white flowers drooping on them. What Father will become.
My mother touches the cavernous buttresses at its base. My arms have tensed around my father, holding him tighter to me. His spines scratch my face.
Andrew opens his arms in front of me and beckons for the pot, but my arms have rigor mortised around it. It was easy as a concept. My mind accepts it, but my body will not acquiesce.
‘Temi’, he says softly, putting his hands over mine on the pot. ‘It’s okay.’
My arms surrender the pot to him muscle by muscle. They feel strangely empty; the only thing left of the pot is the ache in my muscles and red indentations on my skin.
Andrew takes it and walks until he is out of the shadow of the elder tree. Then he takes his backpack off and opens it; two trowels spill out. He holds one out. My mother is behind us now, turned away, staring at the sky. I step forward and take a trowel, and together we crouch and begin to dig into the earth. It’s hard the first few goes, then starts to pile up readily around our ankles. Our mother joins us halfway through, but without a trowel, she uses her hands, clawing and clumping the dirt out of the hole. Her movements are scurrying, frantic as though she wants nothing more than to be done with this.
When the hole is sufficiently wide and deep, Andrew staggers up. My knees are so cramped from crouching that I plop onto my ass. My mother remains crouched in front of the hole, head and hands hanging limply.
I wipe sweat from my forehead and smear it with dirt, then stand. Andrew and I go to our father’s pot and lift him out together. The spikes dig into our palms. Andrew grimaces. Dirt clumps around the network of roots, the ends poking out of it. Together we move our father to the hole. Some of the dirt shakes loose and onto our mother’s head. She is still crouched there, shoulders shaking.
I crouch next to her and put a hand on her shoulder. ‘Mummy’, I whisper. ‘It’s time.’ The vibrations of her shoulder ripple through me. When she looks at me, her eyes are red but dry. She has been unable to produce tears since the incident. I offer her my hand, and we stagger upwards together. Andrew takes a trowel and packs it full of the earth we just excavated.
‘Wait!’ my mother says. ‘Hold on.’ She reaches into her pocket and produces a picture. I recognise it. It used to sit on our mantle.
It was taken early into the crisis when the whole thing was still an isolated incident happening far away from us. My father had wrangled us down one morning, still half-dreaming and not in any state to be photographed. My hair is spiky and matted, and I’m in one of my father’s old shirts that I stole to sleep in. There’s a bit of white crust at the edge of Andrew’s mouth, and our father’s face is arranged in its base sternness, but there is mirth in his eyes. My mother leans against Father like he’s the only reason she’s able to stand. She’s trying not to smile, not to give him the satisfaction, but her lips are quirked in a way that suggests she is fighting a losing battle. Her eyes have that glint in them that screams she has a secret and wouldn’t you like to know it.
My father had got the photo printed and framed, placing it at the centre of the mantle. ‘Now I can always remember what you looked like when you turn to bushes’, he’d said.
My mother had rolled her eyes. ‘My God, Oyake. Don’t be so macabre.’ She sounded glib, but there was a glint of fear in her voice. She wrapped herself around his arm like she was rooting him to her.
Now, she smooths the picture out against her body, gives it a longing last look and leans over the hole. ‘Give me a moment.’
Andrew and I nod and step away from her, going to the other side of the path. This isn’t the first time she’s talked to him like this. One night in the early days, I woke up bleary-eyed and stumbled downstairs to the kitchen for a glass of water and heard whispers from the parlour. My mother sat at the dining table, legs crossed, leaning over it like she was sharing a secret. ‘Oh Oyake, I don’t know. I’m not sure I can do this without you.’
I had stepped away. She deserved her privacy just as Andrew and I did when we spoke to him. For me, it was usually while I tended to him, telling him the banalities of my empty days and the secrets I hadn’t shared when he could still respond to them. I made up stories of our alternate futures together where he walked me down the aisle to another bride waiting at the altar. Most of all I said I loved him, perhaps too much, with almost every other word because it wasn’t something we’d said much to each other.
My mother beckons to Andrew and me. We pick up our trowels and work until the hole is filled. Andrew stamps the earth down so it looks barely disturbed.
We stand in front of it, hands intertwined, daisy-chained together. Andrew is crying. I am too. The salt mixes with the dirt on my face and grits my lips. One day his trunk will be thicker than all of us combined; his limbs will stretch and fan across the sky. He’ll live for a hundred years and a hundred more. He’ll swallow poison and breathe life and be a grander thing than he could have ever imagined, than our minds can even hold.
At night we sleep in the master bedroom on a bed barely enough for all three of us, our limbs and breaths tangling like roots. Like we are daring the earth to take us all at once, form a hybrid, hyphaenate us so there will be no one left behind to mourn.
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