There was father, there was mother, there were the two cousins whose parents had died in the war, there was grandmother, and then there was me. I only know the story grandmother has told me; told anyone who cared to listen really. How we were running from the war, all of us, led by father. How we only stopped after many villages, because father had thought that we had succeeded in getting far away. But the soldiers always came knocking. Other times, it was the rebels. They wanted food or money or boys to fight in the war. Grandmother likes to say father was running because he thought that very soon, they would want the girls too. Our last village housed us the longest. I do not remember our last village; I cannot remember much else from before the war or before we came here. Grandmother says that she somehow saved us all; that the spirits led her, and that she in turn brought us here.
“It is true, I saw this place years ago” she would argue. “The spirits came to me in a dream. The tree called us here and now, this is our home.”
Every time grandmother told these stories, she was seated in her easy chair, swaddled in blankets, eyes gleaming, daring father to object, to deny. Father never interrupted these stories. He pretty much let grandmother weave time as she saw fit; nodding when she spoke about this place, our home; sighing whenever she mentioned the war.
Of all of us, grandmother was the proudest of home. She took long languid walks and was the first to know if a new bird came visiting or a branch had fallen. She would name the crickets and ask after their families. She recognized the cry of the owl. Her feet had carved paths through the forest, weaving in and out, leading to all the places father had warned us never to go; the deep places the spirits inhabited.
One day, she returned long after dinner. We were congealed around the hearth, singing songs about the spirits – they were all grandmother’s composition and she had taught them to us one extremely hot afternoon because she thought it would convince the spirits to send us rain. It had begun to rain as we sang. Anyway, grandmother came in that evening, rustling through her garments and scent, and announced solemnly and without warning that we were going to have a baby. The spirits had told her, no, promised her so. The suddening silence quickly settled into a dismissal: a new child? Here? Even as we readied to run from a war that might find us again? Father laughed and held her hand gently, mother shook her head disbelieving, and the cousins tittered. No one had very much faith in grandmother with her songs and stories and rituals, you see; no one had very much faith in the spirits too. But grandmother was right. Very soon, and many moons after, mother’s belly was perfectly swollen, and father walked around in a daze.
“We’re going to have a girl” grandmother whispered excitedly to me one night when the cousins had slept off to the deep croon of her hymns and it had remained just me and her: looking through the darkness, humming under our breaths, grandmother smelling like earth.
My memory only fully begins on that day when Ori was born. Mother awakened us with screams in the midst of the night, and father, embarrassed, ushered us out of the hut. We waited under the tree and listened to the cousins whisper about a boy instead. As dawn broke over the horizon, grandmother came up the mound to where the tree stood; to us. The screams had ceased abruptly a while ago.
“It is a girl” grandmother announced triumphantly. “She belongs to the spirits. Her name is Ori” and father did not protest. We crowded into the hut and when the cousins carried her, grandmother warned them sternly not to drop her, not to put their fingers in her mouth, not to carry her this way or that, until they were tired of listening and chose instead the play of cold gravel, quick feet and dodging backs. When I carried her, she grabbed my finger and smiled at me; a toothless, unseeing smile. Grandmother puttered about the room, humming a song, ushering mother through a bowl of steaming soup, smelling of new life and pungent incenses; unconcerned with me.
“I knew it was going to be a girl” I said to her.
“You are a believer” she said back to me.
Later, when the sun had set and after the cool of the moon had settled over the earth, father took Ori and bound her to the earth, ase; to the tree, ase; to the spirits, ase. He pressed her finger to the bark and fed her the blood it bled. Grandmother stood there, nodding, swaddled, proud.
“The spirits are pleased” she said.
“Look, look” the cousins pointed, “the moon is red with the blood of Ori.”
That was the day that we all believed.
Ori’s skin was the color of the earth, red.
“This is the blood of the people who have died in the war” grandmother used to say, “the spirits are not happy.”
Grandmother used to take long walks with Ori. I started to go with them too.
“This is the tree” – grandmother took Ori up the mound almost every day before the morning – “this is the spirit who saved us all” or, “this is the one who birthed you” but mostly it was, “this is the tree of life” and she would sing “the fruit is food, the wood is fire, the bark is home, the tree of life” and she would make Ori sing it too, then touch the trunk, “to bless it” she said, as the sun peeked through soft yellow.
We would trudge into the forest and grandmother would walk the paths she had made, and name every one of them with the names of the spirits. She would teach Ori the songs of the birds, or how to read the spirits, and Ori would giggle and clap, dimples piercing that red-earth skin of hers, until she had learnt to talk and sing and name the paths too.
One day, grandmother shook me awake, wrapped Ori in special cloth, and led us into the forest. Grandmother did not stop by the mound on this morning, did not say a word. Once or twice as we walked, she paused her humming to sigh contentedly. Half asleep, I walked grandmother’s paths. My feet had learnt their names too and now, I let them carry me into the deep forest, the coolness of the damp earth rising to greet every step. We were still walking when the slumbering plants roused, unfolding leaves and unfurling flowers. We stopped when we reached a grove where darkened trees had linked branches and underfoot, the waters trickled sweetly over boulders. The sun was a staggered stream of light through the canopy of leaves.
“We’ve come to see the spirits” grandmother whispered excitedly to me.
Then she stood in the heart of the grove, and sang her strange song; loud, throaty, and filled with words that said ‘come, let me show you glory’, and the trees rippled in turn. They sounded like cold rainy nights by the fireplace as the cousins share scary stories; like the dust rising on a hot day and swirling around sweaty bodies; like mother’s plantain straight out of sizzling oil. When grandmother was done, her song weaving through the breeze and settling on the grove like skin, she lifted Ori to the sky in her special cloth and the cloth picked up the light from the sun and the colors of the grove, and played with it. That day, I heard the spirits, but did not know what they were saying; they were singing many strange songs. Bowed and peering, they were whispering many strange words, and Ori with her red-earth skin and bald head, was laughing and humming and drinking all the light with her special cloth.
I do not remember what else happened in the grove that day. When I came-to, we were halfway home, Grandmother wearing quietude, Ori humming the song of the spirits. At home, mother was sat kindling the fire, and I sat with her, blowing and blowing, the sun burning in the middle of the sky, until she took one look at the back of my neck and declared: “you have been branded by the spirits”. The cousins looked on, jealous, restless, until they had made me recount word-for-word all that I remembered from the grove, and then they begged Ori for many days, to hum them the strange song. Grandmother sat, watching, weaving, content.
“The war was very bad” father said one day, when there was no reason to. We were harvesting fruit and the cousins were teaching Ori how to climb the tree. I sat on a bough and grandmother directed me on what fruits to pull at and what fruits to bless and leave alone. The cousins had turned it to a game, climbing, laughing, lost in a ruffle of leaves. Mother danced around ready to catch Ori if she ever made to fall. Typically, it was grandmother who told these stories so we looked to her to continue, but it was father who shocked us instead.
“The war was very, very bad” he said again.
“What is a war?” Ori asked, and we laughed – me and the cousins – because we thought it a stupid question until just as we had started, we stopped, terse: what is a war?
“This”, father looked around, “this is better than anything we’ve ever had. This is home.”
And mother began to sing: “the fruit is food, the wood is fire, the bark is home, the tree of life” and Ori, because she had learnt to talk, sang it too; because grandmother had taught it to her, her voice filling the space and eating it.
Grandmother looked on, swaying, blackened palms, proud. And the spirits whispered in the trees. Together, we stood around the tree and blessed it and in return, it showered us with leaves; for soup, for fuel, for sleeping on, ase.
We were happy, for a very long time, we were happy. Grandmother weaved stories for Ori and told it to all of us. She’d stopped talking about the war, instead she spoke about the spirits, about the forest, about the lovers who wanted to be together for all time so that they wrapped themselves around each other in an embrace and spread their roots deep in the earth. “Look” she pointed to the tree, “if you look closely enough, you will see where their faces meet.” And Ori asked and asked, about the spirits who called us here, about the spirits who birthed her, until it was me and her and grandmother, looking through the night, humming all of our songs. They took longer walks – she and Ori – and came back with stranger songs. Grandmother with her blackened palms and greying hair that stood up in tufts, Ori, learning to weave new stories; both of them huddled and whispering, walking and singing and laughing through all of the forest. Me, kindling the fire, branded by the spirits.
Then one night, while the moon gleamed throughout the darkness and the forest reveled in a stillness, Ori woke up in a jolt, crying, and her tears woke us too.
“I saw them, I saw the men” she said.
“What men?” father asked her,
“What men?” mother intoned, but Ori didn’t know.
“They walked in our forest and then, and then…” There were fresh tears in her eyes, “and then they wanted our tree.”
“Shh” mother held her hand, “it was just a dream” and we looked around for grandmother to reassure us all that it really was only a dream, but we could not find her. So we sat in a circle with Ori in the middle and sang the songs of the spirits – the songs that grandmother had taught us – until we felt the fear lifting.
When grandmother finally came, it was midday and her eyes were distant.
“I saw two men in the forest” she said. Father paced up and down, to mother’s side, to the place where Ori sat crying, to the tree and back, begging for our protection. When dusk came, father was whispering to grandmother about running again, about mother:
“What shall we do now, ehn? Can she make it?”
“She’s too weak…”
“But the rest of you are not…”
“I am an old woman” grandmother said, and “no!” the cousins said before running up the tree in a haze, when he’d asked them. This is where they spent the night. When father looked at me to ask, I did not meet his eyes.
“This is the only home we want, this is the only home we have” he screamed at the spirits, but impassive the tree remained, rustling in the wind, humming strange songs.
I held Ori’s hand.
“We’re still safe for now” father said when he returned, “I have not seen any men yet.”
“The forest is pretty big” mother said.
“The spirits will save us” grandmother said
“They’re coming, they’re coming” Ori said and said everyday, and the clouds darkened against the sky, and the cousins skipped rocks in the sullenness. I walked to the place where the men were, Grandmother’s paths led me there, calling my feet as if to say ‘come and see oh’. The men were skinny and blackened by the sun; standing straight and apart in the midst of the foliage. Raffia hats hung low on their heads, flies flitted by their ears. They held tapes and measured and stopped, and scribbled and pointed, and measured and stopped. And then they did it all over again until many, many moons had passed. Each morning there were more of them; each morning, they came in big, loud trucks, until their machines and dogs had learnt to groan throughout the forest. Grandmother walked and walked, teaching her paths to find the men. I followed.
“We’re still safe, we’re still safe” father had muttered over and over before grandmother and I set out each day.
The men were getting closer now, and the forest had learnt to snap under the weight of their toothed saws.
“They are from the war” Grandmother told me one day as we walked, “they need wood to fight the war. This is where the rail will pass into the forest”, and grandmother showed me, and the new path passed through where our tree stood, impassive and silent, bowed under the weights of the spirits.
Each night, we gathered by the hearth and sang the songs of the spirits, one by one, so that we had sung them until morning. One morning, gaunt and frail, Ori announced “they will find us” and then she started to cry again. Father walked to where our tree stood and screamed for the spirits who’d called us here. Mother sat in grandmother’s easy chair, cradling a swollen belly, listening to the cousins who were singing in a circle around Ori while father screamed for the spirits who’d saved us. That morning, men with eyes as hard as rocks came knocking, their heavy boots crunching the gravel. They walked through mother’s herb garden, and tore down the flying man that the cousins had built. They wanted the cousins for the war. They wanted father too, but father was too stubborn. One of the men stood, one leg on the earth-mounds me and Ori had made for the spirits to sit, laughing, chewing tobacco, and spitting to the side. Grandmother hid me and Ori in the big pot of water.
“shhhhhh” she’d whispered before the cover came down over us, “shhhhh”.
The men grabbed the cousins and threw them in a truck, and the cousins cried: for father to save them, for the spirits to hold them, for the war that was now calling them.
“We can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way” those men said through gritted teeth, charcoal coating their under-eyes. Ori started to cry softly.
Grandmother taught me a path and I bore Ori to the grove so that the spirits could keep her. The last words I heard were father’s; words rowed in a sea of tears and followed closely by the bloody gurgle of guns.
But Ori did not want to stay in the grove. Weak and shrinking, she wanted to go back home you see; to the place where she was bound to the earth, to the tree, to the spirits. Stay here Ori, we’re safe here, but she refused. The spirits rustled through wilting trees, smelling like earth, smelling like ashes. She wanted to say goodbye.
The paths refused to go home. They stopped abruptly and weaved around in circles, but we made them. Ori sang to them and pleaded to see father, to see mother, and then they relented, grudgingly, and turned back the instant we had passed.
Home is the place where we once were: our hut of fronds, our kindling of fires, the cousins pelting through the forest with the aim of their catapult. The forest, brooding, cowering, sullen underneath darkened skies sang the dying songs of the spirits; and there, where we should all have been: singing, kindling, grandmother weaving time, was the space that sang of the death of our tree. This is where I laid Ori.
“Tell me the story of our home” she begged, and her skin was the color of ashes in darkness. So I told her the story, as grandmother used to tell it, of the spirits who called us. Then Ori sang a song, her voice parched and breaking, and this is how she sang it:
This is the spirit who made us all
This is the spirit who birthed you
The fruit is food, ase
The wood is fire, ase
The bark is home,
And home is here,
The tree of life, ase
This is the spirit who called you home,
This is the spirit who saved you.
And Ori told the story, of the lovers who had sworn eternity to each other; of grandmother as she sat and weaved, blackened palms, humming songs, smelling like earth; of a spreading and of faces meeting; of the spirits of the forest. And the sun in defiance to the moon swore all through the night. And the sun was a sun that was blooded, and its blood was the color of the earth; the color Ori’s skin used to be, red. When Ori finished her story; the story of our home and the stories of the universe, it was morning and we could find no more tears to cry. So she reached, and wrapped and took herself in an embrace for all time, throughout the earth, throughout the sullenness. This is how she said goodbye.
There was father, there was mother, there were the two cousins, there was grandmother, and then, they were no more. And in the place where they should have been, there was Ori. Her roots had spread into the earth, and her branches sprouted leaves sky wards. Tired at first, her growing was soon a rage: twisting, bulging, tearing up the earth, and red. Red, the color of the blooded sun; red, the color her skin once was.
“Go”, the spirits whispered to me, the smell of earth, the scent of grandmother.
And I ran, my feet carving new paths to the place where the machines and their men sat, loud and laughing, eating through the forest. And I named my paths: father, mother, grandmother, and rage.
M., [she/her] is heavily interested in the activism of literature, and how it explores expressions of shared identities and histories. Sometimes she reads, sometimes she writes. Most times she’s off fighting strangers on Twitter.
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