“Trees spend all day looking up at God.” –for one more day-Mitch Albom
I was in the backyard helping her to hang some clothes on a line that stretched from the kitchen window to an avocado tree, which was fast becoming blighted under the heat of the sun. The line was so long it drooped like a pregnant cow so when the clothes were hung, they touched the ground, and she had to hold it up with a long bamboo stick. She had decided to hang the white clothes first because they tend to dry faster in the early morning breeze with just a pinch of sunlight. She wanted to finish early so she could prepare lunch for Brother Henry, who seemed to take a liking to her company and the taste of her black grounded Blue Mountain coffee mixed with coconut milk and sweetened with brown sugar. He wasn’t a neighbor, really. The man had to walk four miles to reach our yard, and he never came without bringing a lovely hand of green bananas on his head and two full breadfruits in both hands swinging proudly. Mammy Rose would bake the two breadfruits as soon as she got them under hot wood-fire ash and then serve Brother Henry delightedly with codfish on the side.
Mammy Rose was a no-nonsense woman. She had lost Grandpa some ten years ago and vowed she would never look for another companion. However, for some reason, she reluctantly tolerated Brother Henry. I surmised it was because of his persistence and his uncanny ability to translate what one would consider as insult to Mammy Rose into humorous responses. The man had a monstrous sense of humor. As a matter of fact, he was the only one who could have elicited a giggle from her, and, to me, that was a momentous achievement. She was no easy street, and he seemed to know the right pathway to her sentimentality. Whenever Mammy Rose talked of the man-tree, I would hear slips of regrets in her voice. It sounded like an echo coming from the depths of her stomach which caused her voice to take on a baritone sound. It was flat, deep with hesitation, more like when someone was holding back, afraid to commit fully to something they didn’t fully understand. I kind of got the feeling that there was a love/hate relationship between her and the tree, and it all depended on her mood at the time if the tree would be complimented or cursed.
“I know this tree since I was so big,” she said, indicating with her right hand the height, “and all it does is just grows and grows as if it wants to touch the sky. I really, really feel sorry for it.”
She looked down at me with those threatening eyes of hers and said, “Don’t you ever let me catch you up in that good-for-nothing tree. You hear me, boy?”
The tree was rooted smack in the middle of our tenement yard. It was the first thing everyone saw when they got up in the mornings and the last thing they avoided when they went to sleep at nights. It had an obvious presence. Over the years it withstood several powerful hurricanes. It stood in the yard like a lonesome giant. There were no other mango trees in the yard to keep its company. It had been said its root was so deep into the ground it probably might have reached China by now. Some claimed it was planted by slaves a long, long, time ago and that it served as a resting place for them after toiling in the wicked sun all day long. Others claimed ghosts gathered under it at nighttime when they were restless and planned for mischief on the living.
Stories about the tree made it mystical and legendary; many raised questions as to the possibility that it might not even be a mango tree. They raised questions such as how could we really tell if it was a mango tree, and it never bears to prove such? Some believers said, you could tell from the kind of leaves it had. People who claimed to be “professors without portfolio” claimed you could tell if you should cut deep into its bark and taste it.
One day George, my best friend, and I were up in the tree trying to see if we could spot the famous beer drinking pigs from our vantage point. Our yard was about two miles from Mount Tripoli. We have never seen these pigs. We only heard about them.
While in the tree, George asked me, “You believe in this thing ‘bout ghosts under the mango tree, Maxus?”
“Well,” I said, “it could be true.”
“You must be crazy.”
“You remember the time when this church woman says she saw one swinging on a limb?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he said, “but she was a mad woman and mad people see anything, you know that.”
“True, but how ‘bout old Johnson who say he saw his dead wife calling him one night to come and sit with her under it?”
“Come on, Maxus,” said George.
“You know Johnson. He was more than mad. He was a lonely man who was missing his wife.”
“Well, let me put it this way then, anything is possible.”
George laughed and said I was an idiot believing foolish stories like that.
Although I really never believed in things like ghosts, I often saw dark shadows lurking by the tree in the night. Secretly, I was afraid to venture near it sometimes, especially at late hours by myself. We labeled the tree “number eleven” because it had a split trunk which looked like two number ones standing side by side. It had long spiny hard leaves; it grew taller than a light post; and its limbs were like the tentacles of an octopus, only fatter and rougher. If it were a “woman mango tree,” then July would’ve been its expected month—mango season.
The tree affected me as if it had somehow hypnotized me with the idea that one day it would eventually bear and all it wanted me to do was to help it along. To make sure this would be the case, every evening when I came home from school, I would run to the nearby river, scoop up a bucket of water, and with a cup of brown sugar, sweeten the water, and then pour it at the root of the tree. Some of my friends said I was ridiculous; others laughed, but I was determined. I was convinced my efforts would help it to fulfill its natural purpose. In my foolish thoughts, if it did bear, my watering the root of the tree with sweetened brown sugar water would make the mangoes taste as sweet as sugar, and maybe those who had wanted to cut it down, laughed or called me a jackass, would feel guilty for ever thinking the way they did. Under its cool shadow we would gather together, play marble, hopscotch, skip rope, and participate in certain promiscuous games.
We built a swing on one of its lower branches where George had broken his foot one day when he swung very far up in the air then jumped out landing in the ravine of the gully screaming his head off, “My foot! My foot, it broke! I see bones! God, somebody help me!” In the summertime, we would gather up old chairs, milk crates, and old tree stumps under the tree and when the sun goes down, we would tell Anansi stories. I remembered one summer George and I had came up with an idea to make some money by building our own movie house. We went down to the Alexander Theatre where behind it was a garbage bin. In it were discarded films—films that the projector had busted.
We would take these pieces of films and glue them back together. With a magnifying glass from an old photo camera, we got a cardboard box and bore two holes–one on each side. In one hole we fitted the magnifying glass, and in the next hole, we placed a flashlight. In the middle of the box on top and in the middle at the bottom, we cut a small line about two inches long. We then placed the film through the slit on top and fed it through to the bottom. With that set up, we then placed the magnifying glass towards a white sheet we had previously put up against the mango tree with bamboo sticks and turned on the flashlight. We then slowly turn the film that we had glued together and rolled on a piece of stick to make it onto a reel.
Our make shift movie house was open for business! We charged ten cents to see our movies each night. You could say that we practically lived under the tree. Most of the adults considered it good, because as children, we were always in sight, not out of sight doing things to put us in peril, especially us boys, who were known to be restless creatures. The tree was called all kinds of names. Mammy Rose called it “a mule.” The old folks referred to it, as “a man tree,” because they knew neither mule nor man could reproduce. Some were so angry they suggested we should just cut it down because it was a useless tree. What was the use in having a fruit tree in your yard that couldn’t bear? It was a waste of space and bothersome, especially when it’s dried up leaves fell to the ground and you had to rake them up for hours.
A woman (a Jehovah’s Witness) who came to our house one day to sell copies of The Watchtower, a religious magazine, claimed the tree was cursed by Jesus. She said it was a “barren tree.” Mammy Rose asked her to explain. She took out her Bible and read a story about a barren fig tree. I looked at the woman and said to her that the tree was a mango tree and not a fig tree. She looked at me, smiled and said, “Same difference.” The tree was home to lizards, birds, spiders, and sometimes a tried chicken hawk would just perch in the dead center of it on the highest limb, breathing hard with its mouth wide open like someone dying of thirst. At one time it was the home of the African wasps some claimed came all the way over the oceans to the Caribbean, interbred with the local ones and changed their color to an ash light brown which made them difficult to spot. These mutated local wasps were the most feared wasps on the island—a baby was killed by a swarm of them one day when the mother left child in the yard while she was washing clothes at the public cistern. We had to burn them out almost to the ruination of the tree. But, it survived with sun, rain and brown sugar water. It was also the vacation spot for mountain doves, especially the big black ones—the ones with the purple crown on their heads. I supposed the doves had liked the tree because it was shaped like a tall gigantic umbrella on top. It was well known mountain doves liked tall broad leafy trees because you could hardly see them. This tree was cloaked with leaves—hundreds and hundreds of leaves; you could climb up and settle there, and no one could see you. It was the perfect place to hide, and we took advantage, especially when George and I knew we were going to be asked to rake leaves.
*** In bird season when the wind adjusted itself to fan cool breeze, and us boys walked around bare-shirted, and just before the mountain doves came to build their nests, George and I would climb it and hide in the thick foliage of the leaves and patiently wait for them to arrive. When they finally arrived and settled down, we would aim our slingshots but only at the male who was easily identified by the shiny green and bluish color ring around its neck. We shot the male because we knew the female was full with eggs around this time, and it would have been a sin to kill a female dove with eggs. We weren’t bird experts, but we knew male doves were not like pigeons whose male helped the female to incubate the eggs and feed the young ones straight up to when they were ready to fly away from their nests. The male mountain dove possesses no sense of domestication or family responsibilities like helping the female to build its nest or even to defend its territory. It only helped itself on the survival chain link. For this reason there were no regrets or bad feelings on our part when we shot a male mountain dove. Besides, it was delicious when fired crispy and placed in the middle of a butter bread sautéed with ketchup, mayonnaise and thin slices of hot peppers. In the night the tree looked like the shadow of a 100-feet black man looking over the yard as if it were guarding the people who lived there. Funny enough, I’ve never felt reassured where someone was protecting me. Instead, the tree made me feel apprehensive like it would fall on my head at any time because of old age. I recalled a story being told about a coconut tree that had fallen and killed an East Indian woman named Gangika. She was among dozens of faithful at the beach celebrating the Hindu water festival—Kartik. The tree fell on top of a tent in which the woman and others were worshiping.
On this occasion there were about two hundred villagers who had gone to Dorsch Beach to celebrate Kartik. There were about fifty them performing pooja—the religious ritual which most Hindus perform every morning after bathing and dressing prior to taking any food or drinks—in a tent near the seashore. Most of them had finished, but there were about six of the devotees who had to complete the artee—waving the sacred lights around the statues used in the forms of gods—when the wind started to blow and the coconut tree fell. Mammy Rose said that the Indians should have known better because the weather man had warned of a tropical depression with heavy wind, rain, and high waves. “Why they couldn’t wait and worship another day, only God knows,” said Mammy Rose shaking her head. What Mammy Rose forgot was that they couldn’t wait because Kartik occurs each year in the month of Martik (October). In that month devotees would perform rituals and then bathe in the sea. The East Indian people, who came to the island as indentured servants following the abolition of slavery, worship Gaga Maata, the goddess who presides over the holy rivers. At the time, because of the death, the pooja was cancelled for the first time in the religious history of the Hindu water festival on the island.
“Too bad,” Mammy Rose said. “The unexpected always happens anyhow.”
*** The moon seemed to set over the top of the tree creating this monstrous dark silhouette. And because of its dead dark presence, it attracted hundreds of fireflies who would circle it making it look like a Christmas tree. Sometimes the moon would look as if it had changed angles seemingly becoming a dull flashlight beam winking through branches of leaves. The best way to view a full moon was to climb the tree and comfortably seat oneself in the middle and look up. It was a magnificent view. It made you feel as if you could reach out and touch the moon itself. I think only George and I had ever seen this view, this spectacular phenomenon. I knew of no other who would dare take the chance of climbing the tree in the night other than us two daring fools. The tree was dark-brown in color, and its bark was rough like the skin of an alligator. I associated this with wrinkles on old, old people. There were times when in haste and to avoid the wrath of Mammy Rose, I would, in a mad rush to climb down from the tree, scrap the skin off my belly, the inner sides of my two arms, and the inner sides of my thighs. I would hide my injuries because I knew if Mammy Rose found out that I was climbing the tree, it would be the skin off my backsides and the end of my secrete adventures under her nose, which was kind of thrilling when I think about it. Besides being the favorite spot for playing games and the sanctuary of birds, the tree became a babysitter for a special boy by the name of Joe McBride.
Joe’s family we labeled “Fresh-Water-Yankees.” We called them such because, although being native islanders, they had spent most of their lives in America, adopted its style and then decided to come back home to island life like they were foreigners. His mother decided she no longer wanted to live in America.
She claimed America was too fast and impersonal.
“The people have no manners,” she told Mammy Rose.
“You know you could starve in America, and no one would give you even a piece of bread? You know you could live in a housing apartment for years, and no one would tell you ‘good morning’ or ‘good evening?’ You know everything cost money in America, even to use the public toilets?”
She was dramatic when relating her life and times in Brooklyn, New York. She once told Mammy Rose how she had missed home and how she wanted her children to know from whence they came. “They know nothing about doctor fish soup, suck-suck, or kallaloo. They never drank tamarind juice or Christmas sorrel.
“I wanted them to know the simple way of island life. They needed to understand that not everything cost money—you know, how to survive on their own instinct by living off the land.”
Mammy Rose, who had America on her mind, took the woman’s stories as cynicism. She said the woman’s stories were stories of someone who had failed beyond their means to survive as simple people. She said the woman was pretentious and always looked to someone to do something for her without reciprocating it. Mammy Rose said she believed something bad had happened to the woman and that she just didn’t want anyone to know about it, so she concocted stories about missing her culture, the people, and the beauty of island life.
“Hogwash!” she said, sucking her teeth. I really believed that in Mammy Rose’s eyes there was no beauty left on the island. Not beauty of the people, places or things. But ugly in the way how people were suffering, how things were hard and jobs were difficult to come by, and how the young people were getting out of hand and dying too soon.
She said, “Look at what had happened to Miss Viola’s son, Johnny.” Johnny received fourteen bullets and two stabs.
“It looked like he was trying to run and him get shot in the back,” Miss Viola said to Mammy Rose the evening she came running and screaming.
“You can see where he was running because his slippers them was in the road.” Miss Viola held her belly and moaned in grief.
“Look like him was not dead, and they turn him over because you can see…you can see…the dirt. When we got to the scene, which was the position we found him, on his face with his back dirty.” Miss Viola bent forward illustrating how she found her son dead in middle of the dirt road. Miss Viola was a constant guest at Mammy Rose’s house after the death of her son.
I supposed it was the one place where she could have gotten some kind of easement to her sorrows. Once she confessed how she felt since the loss of her biggest son, Johnny.
“I cannot have a bright Friday since that day,” said Miss Viola. “As Friday comes, I see him lying down, crying out for help, running, begging…that is the way I picture him. I am a Christian, and I ask the Lord for forgiveness because there is a piece of trouble inside of me that I can’t let goes—this tightness, this anger.”
Johnny was a good, good man, and when Miss Viola was explaining her feelings, his face became real to me. He was a loner, a hard worker; he had loved his mother because, as he had told me once, he was the oldest of nine brothers and sisters, and he was the one who had never seen his father.
“What a terrible waste,” Mammy Rose said shaking her head as she hugged Miss Viola.
*** It didn’t take the McBride’s long to assimilate within the ordinariness of yard life. However, as a result, the mango tree paid for it in the long run. There were three children in the Mc Bride’s clan: two beautiful daughters: Mimi and Clarisse, along with Joe. George became Mimi’s puppet on a string immediately after he saw her. He was obsessed with her pretty face, and although he wasn’t living in the yard, it became his home away from home—sometimes I think his home period. George would not leave the yard until late in the night. He became Mimi’s errand boy.
“Oh, George, bring me some more of those sweet things. I…I…mean those delicious mangoes. And George, please don’t forget some of those monkey cakes. Oh, I’m sorry. I…I mean the coconut cakes, they taste so divine!” She was a girl with an American attitude of self assurance: “You know nothing! I know everything! I run things, and don’t you forget it!”
You could not help noticing Mimi, for she spoke like the Americans through her nose, something we called, “twang.” She was very smart. I supposed that was one of the reasons for George’s attraction and the fact that she knew more than him and how to use her natural attributes to her advantage. She was attractive—with her smooth unblemished dark skin and long straight hair—and so she used it to get anything she wanted from him. Clarisse was the complete opposite of Mimi. She was a shy girl, not as pretty but, in my mind, absolutely sincere. Her quietness made her acceptable in the company of others.
Mammy Rose said that that girl had manners and respect and she would go a long way in life. Clarisse knew her place by speaking only when she was spoken to—something Mammy Rose was always trying to get me to do—for Clarisse, it was a natural thing. I’d liked Clarisse because somehow she trusted me more than anyone else. And although she was a bit shy, she was also curious, and as a result she would ask me to show her this place or that thing. She was very much interested in nature, thus she became the conscience for the mountain doves. She persuaded me not to shoot them anymore. They were God’s creatures in her eyes. I accepted her wish. Somehow I didn’t want to get into this religious explanation of how God created the birds, fishes and other animals so man could survive. I didn’t think she was into philosophy. I even helped her to climb the mango tree unknown to anyone else. She insisted she wanted to touch the sky. Clarisse and I became best of friends. In fact, George and I over a period of time drifted apart. He would pass me by with a grin on his face and with some kind of gift in his hand, racing towards the McBride’s’ house. I’d never gone to the McBride’s house. I was afraid of the mystery that seemed to surround them like a thick fog. Whenever I wanted to see Clarisse, I would climb the mango tree and whistle one of our popular folk songs: Yellow bird high up in de mango tree…
Joe was retarded, and he couldn’t speak. Words came out of his mouth like the sound of a monkey, “Ohhu! Ohhu! Heeeeee! Heeeeee! Heeeeee!” His mouth was twisted to the left side. He walked dragging his left feet like a sweeping broom, and he shook a lot like he was constantly in a seizure. I said to myself it was probably because of his physical condition why we never saw him in the yard and the main reason his mother kept him locked up in the house. I felt she was ashamed being his mother. It was Clarisse, who told me about her brother in the first place. When she described him, you could see the pain in her face as it changed expressions and, at the same time, hear the reluctance in her voice like someone who was afraid to reveal a secret. I felt it was their skeleton in the closet—the reason why they were back home from the land of baseball and apple pie—to be among backward island people—to hide their shame. Clarisse said he was born that way, and they had tried doctor after doctor but all gave up. She said they were black people living in America and, worse, poor immigrants.
She explained how Joe was dangerous to himself. I asked her what she meant by dangerous. She said sometimes they had to tie him up on the bed post because he would suddenly get up and violently bang his head against the walls even on the concrete floor. Sometimes, she said, they had to tie his two hands behind his back because he would eat the skin from the back of them. I felt sorry for Joe because I’d liked him. I was convinced if he were not that way, he could have been one of us—race to the river, shoot birds, play games and jump our neighbor’s fence to thief mangoes. Anyway, I was also convinced that he could become better if only they would let him out of the house and let him see and mingle with other people rather than his own family. I believed they were making him worse, keeping him a prisoner—so it was a surprise to me when one day I saw Clarisse pulling him towards us under the mango tree. Joe’s two hands were tied in front of him with a rope while Clarisse led him like a dog on a leash. I stopped the marble game abruptly. I stood there and just looked in disbelief. What was Clarisse doing? Why was she bringing her retarded brother around? Look at how he resembled a “mad man.” His hair was an uncombed afro; the clothes on him looked too big; his pants were down to his buttocks and the slippers on his feet were sweeping the ground showing unwashed black feet. His eyes were blood-shot red as if they wanted to pop out of his face. You couldn’t help but notice how he constantly chewed his gums as if he wanted to swallow his tongue. Spittle dripped constantly from his mouth onto his shirt where there was a bib with a big red apple printed in the middle. The bib was wet and dirty, his hands were sore with teeth marks. His movements frightened me because his entire body jerked intermittingly. The jerking was a result of his epileptic condition.
Clarisse described it as an epileptic fever with tremors like those after an earthquake. When Clarisse reached the tree where we were, she took Joe to it and tied the end she was holding around it. She then introduced Joe to us as cool as ever. You could tell she was glad by the way she was smiling and clapping her hands. Seeing this, I thought it was because we nonchalantly accepted him without showing her that we were uncomfortable with his presence. I didn’t care about the others. I was cool with the whole thing. That was her brother, and I was sure she loved him like a sister should—blood was thicker than water. As time went by, some of us became friendly with Joe. I, for one, accepted his presence. Occasionally I would throw a ball at him expecting he would catch it and throw it back, but instead, he would pick it up still with his two hands tied, put the ball to his mouth and try to eat it. I would rush to him and say, “No…No…Joe!” I would take the ball from him and demonstrate the action of throwing.
He would try, but the ball would just drop at his feet. Some would laugh as he stood there pointing at the ball saying, “Ohhu! Ohhu! Heeeeee! Heeeeee! Heeeeee!”
“Stop laughing at the boy!” I shouted defensively, angrily. I made up my mind then and there that I would be Joe’s defender, his protector as long as I was around. I looked at Joe and said, “Joe, pay them no mind.”
He looked at me and said, “Ohhu! Ohhu! Heeeeee! Heeeeee! Heeeeee!” Having had Joe tied to the mango tree so often, it became an accepted thing over time, a fixed photographic image on the eye lids of those who get to know him.
Somehow we expected to see him there looking like an abandoned lonely dog; even Mimi got into the ritualistic act of tying him to the tree. When we were at school, Joe was there under the tree all day by himself. Where he was tied, as a result of his jerking, twisting and turning, the rope began to eat into the trunk of the tree. When he was removed, you could see a deep impression of the rope around the trunk of the tree like a permanent tattoo. Joe became an attraction of sorts to the strangers who came in to our yard. He was like a monkey in a zoo. I kind of felt bad for him in a way. Sometimes I would try my best to explain the circumstances under which he was tied to the tree. I did it to disguise my embarrassment. Yes, I felt guilty like I was the one who was responsible for him being the way he was.
I figured I needed to compensate for it—a matter of desensitizing myself so I could have a clear conscience.
*** Although I felt sympathetic, Joe was disgusting in a sense. Ever so often I had to stop him from seriously injuring himself. I caught myself rushing over to him to stop him from banging his forehead so brutally hard on the trunk of the tree. I was afraid he would have damaged his forehead and bleed to death. He even developed the nasty habit of spitting in people’s faces whenever they came up close to him. I said to myself even though he was disgusting, he just couldn’t help himself, and for that reason, deep down in my guts, I had this feeling his family didn’t really give a damn, especially his own mother.
Whenever she was feeding him, there was this distance on her eyes, this don’t-care attitude in her manner and an expression on her face like a billboard sign saying, “Please come and take this child away from me before I do something unforgiving.”
She was always in a hurry to feed him—roughly poking food in his mouth while angrily threatening to slap with the spoon. Mimi on the other hand was indifferent. My feeling was she only tolerated him, because of the attention he got which somehow she managed to divert it in her direction and then transposed it to her own purpose—a popularity charade. By seeing and experiencing these inhumane things, I questioned myself. Why did I feel this way about Joe? Was it because of sympathy, or was I really ashamed of his grotesque appearance? Was I merely embarrassed, or was I just fooling myself? I think my feelings were clouded with fear—deep rooted in the wisdom of what my late grandpa used to say: What goes around comes around; one day for you the next day for me; those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. I saw Joe as me tied to the barren tree. That frightened me. How could I stand someone else cleaning up my mess, feeding me; putting on my clothes, tolerating me only hoping I would die one day soon so as to get rid of a burden?
Me! I truly believed Joe’s mother came back to the island so she could get rid of him. She was an island woman who was familiar with the ignorance of her people, their idiosyncrasies, their mores, and the myth of a culture in dealing with the unexplainable. Many of us weren’t familiar with Joe’s kind of sickness. People like Joe were seen as “the unwanted,” a bad omen, a freak of society, an embarrassment to the family like someone with leprosy. People like Joe who were born deformed and mentally challenged usually ended up at the bottom of a river before they ever got to see sunlight. I supposed it was a blessing in disguised that he was born in America—it saved him and threatened a myth deep rooted in the psychology of island life; a cultural life planted in the moors of slavery. I could see clearly now why I felt so close to Joe. It was psychological, therapeutic in some sense. I wanted to learn. I wanted to place myself inside his body and experience his reality. I wanted to understand his solitary confinement in the event that if I should become like him, God forbid, maybe I would know how to survive because of the many faces of hypocrisy I happened to observe over time Grandpa had once told me people were generally good by nature and sometimes in life you need to trust somebody. However, what I had missed from his sayings was who could you trust when around you were those who strive to survive on an island that produces so little and the essence of survival was to trample on the less fortunate?
A dog eats dog kind of life. Well, I couldn’t stand pretentious love! I would prefer to die than be humiliated; but, then again, how would I feel or know I was being humiliated by the acts of others—I am supposed be retarded! I am Joe! Sense just didn’t make sense! Joe was in a world of his own mind, low on the scale of normalcy. In his eyes, “we were the ones who were crazy;” our world to him was a mad, mad world. He was the normal one. He and the mango tree became one, a fixture in my life, a peepshow in the yard where strangers would come to see the monkey tied to a mango tree. As a result of this, it finally settled in my mind that it didn’t matter what I did to help the mango tree to bear; it would never produce a mango. It was nature’s way I concluded. I no longer watered its root with sweetened brown sugar water, and the mountain doves were free to do as they pleased. At this point in my mind the tree now had a better purpose; it was now Joe’s sanctuary. It was his home—a place where he could see from his own eyes—we were the abominable, the monkeys in his zoo.
One day I came home from school and saw a strange man with an ax hacking away at the mango tree. I saw Mammy Rose, George, Mimi, Clarisse, his mother and others, some I didn’t recognize—all gathered around this strange man watching as he sunk the ax into the trunk of the mango tree with a vengeance.
I didn’t see Joe. I ran up to Mammy Rose who grabbed me by the hand and said, “No, Maxus. Don’t go any further.”
“But why is this man cutting down our mango tree?” “
That’s Joe father.” “Joe father?”
“Yes, he come the other day.”
I had never met Joe’s father. Neither Mimi nor Clarisse had ever mentioned anything about their father. Where was he all this time? Why was he cutting down our tree and where was Joe? The stranger was a short, stocky brown- skinned man. He was strong with thick forearms and his neck was buried in his shoulders like a weightlifter. Because of the power of the man, every time he sank the blade of the ax into the trunk of the tree, it shook, and then defiantly stood at ease, daring the man to strike again. Somehow it seemed as if the tree was fighting back. The man, looking like a dwarf to the tree was struggling whenever he removed the ax from the deep flesh of the tree. In his fixed determination, the man raised back his two hands like a golf player and mercilessly sank the ax deep into the flesh of the tree. The ax was so deep into the flesh of the tree, he had to rattle and shake the ax to remove it. At one time, he missed, and the ax almost took his foot off. It slammed into the shin of his foot; he hollowed, cursed and then huffed and chopped away at the tree. Chips of flesh flew off the trunk like feathers in flight. Where he consistently placed the ax into the flesh of the tree, you could see the core of the tree white like a fresh slice of yam. While Mammy Rose held me, I heard the others around mentioning Joe’s name. The way they were speaking said something terrible had happened.
“The tree had nothing to do with what happen to the boy. All you like to speculate,” said Mammy Rose.
“Yeah, that what you think,” said a woman holding a Bible in her hand.
“Look, somebody should have paid more attention to that poor boy,” said Mammy Rose.
“You are right,” said another, “but Jesus Christ, the tree was a worthless one. It never bears one mango, and I think it should’ve been chop down a long time ago. Now look what happen? Poor little Joe. I don’t know, but that fall…I don’t know, he might be dead by now.”
“Shut you mouth, you stinking hypocrite. You talking like you all had give a damn ‘bout him!” Mammy Rose snapped at the person.
“You of all people should know better. You forgot what the Bible says?”
Mammy Rose let go of me and looked directly in the person’s direction and said, “How easy it is for you not to believe that God looks out for the innocent baby and the fool.” When I heard what Mammy Rose said, I tugged at her and asked what had happened? She told me Joe bit off the rope from around his hands and climbed the tree. When Clarisse came looking for him, she could not find him. She then began to call out his name. She said others came out to look for Joe; some said he might have gone down the river, so they went in that direction.
She said none thought of looking up in the mango tree until they heard a noise like a monkey as Joe came falling out of the tree. He fell to the ground, passed out, and just laid there like he was dead. As I looked at the man hacking away at the tree, I said to myself, how ironic it was that Joe fell from the tree on the day his father returned from America. His mother had no husband when she came to live in the yard. Mimi, Clarisse and Joe had no father as far as Mammy Rose was concerned. She was the one who would often say, look how that woman have no man to help her with all those children. When Joe fell from the tree, I was told, a neighbor took him in a truck to the hospital in town.
The people around the mango tree watched as the man hacked and hacked away at the tree with a wicked face. Mammy Rose said when the neighbor’s truck speed out of the yard; Joe’s father came rushing down to the tree with the ax in his hand repeating a passage from the Bible. I asked her what he was saying and she said he was speaking about the fig tree that the church woman had said Jesus cursed. I recalled she read that Jesus had condemned a fig tree because he was hungry, and when he found a fig tree without any fruit he cursed the tree, which later withered and died.
She had also went into another passage where it had said, one day a stranger came to a vineyard looking for fruit on a fig tree, but he did not find any.
He said to the vineyard keeper, “Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down!”
The vineyard keeper answered and said to him, “Let it alone, Sir, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer. If it bears fruit next year, fine; if not, then I’ll cut it down….”
“You all move from out of the blasted way!” shouted the man.
The last blow to the tree sounded like when someone slapped you in the face, then followed by a loud crack. When the sound of the crack echoed over our heads, Mammy Rose grabbed me by the hand, and we scattered. People were running in all directions as the tree came tumbling down. When I saw this, a sudden sickening feeling erupted in my stomach, and I fell to the ground on my knees. Mammy Rose looked down and asked what was the matter with me? Why am I on the ground?
I looked up at her and said with tears in my eyes, “Joe dead.”
“What?” she asked. “
We just kill Joe, Mammy Rose.” Mammy looked over to where the tree now lay on the ground like the replica of a dinosaur.
It suddenly transformed into an ancient relic, and the people standing around were archeologists in awe at a rare find. “I think you right, Maxus,” she said shaking her head up and down. She bent down and helped me up.
“You know,” she said, “that tree had a purpose….We just didn’t care when you really think ‘bout it.”
She looked up in the sky then back down at me. “It was because of that tree why I wasn’t too much worry ‘bout you. You know that? I was always sure you were under that tree with the other children. You could have gone gallivanting all over the place like a loose ram goat, and I wouldn’t have even know where you be.”
I looked up, and her face was shining from the sun. It took advantage of the open space now that the tree was gone.
“That was really something else what happen to Joe,” she continued. “Maybe that’s the way it should have been. Who knows, probably that’s why it never bears…in reality, if it had mangoes on it, who knows… you, George, or any other one of you might have fallen out of it trying to pick them mangoes. The tree had a long life, anyhow, and a reason to be in this yard for so long. You know what so funny?” She looked down at me and smiled, “I will never forget that tree as long as I live. That’s for sure.” “Mammy Rose,” I said, “let’s put down another one in the ground, but this time, we’ll make sure it’s a woman tree, okay.”
“Boy, please tell me how in God’s name, we going to do that?”
“Do what?” I asked. “Make sure it’s a woman tree.” I looked at her unable to answer.
She was right. How does one really know when a tree was a man or a woman before it grows? “Well, we’ll let nature takes its course,” I said. “Amen to that,” she said. We both walked back towards the house. I looked over my left shoulder and saw when Clarisse walked over to the tree and sat on it. Mammy Rose and I went behind the house where we took down the dried white clothes from off the line and put them in a straw basket. She lifted it and put it on my head. We both walked towards the kitchen backdoor humming: Yellow bird high up in de mango tree….
About the author – Winston Nugent was born in Spanish Town, Jamaica and grew up on , U.S. Virgin Islands. He is a Journalist with the Legislature. He was the winner of the first College of the Virgin Islands poetry award in 1975. He has received The International Poet of Merit Award (2001) from The International Society of Poets. In 2002 he placed second in the St. Croix Avis Short Story Search Contest for his story, “The Mahogany Tree.” He was selected as a semi-finalist in the International Open Poetry Contest for his poem, “9/11.” His collections of poems include Blue Rain, Negus, On Our Island and Walking In The Footsteps Of My Ancestors. His works have been anthologized in several Caribbean books, to include the Caribbean Writer series for his poem, The Mongoose, and his short stories, Two Birds With One Stone,” and Many Rivers To Cros” He has worked as a staff writer for the St. Croix Avis and has freelanced for The Virgin Voices magazine, The LA Weekly and The Caribbean Impressions. For several years, Mr. Nugent was a radio journalist and broadcaster for W.S.T.X. AM and FM radio stations. He is the recipient of The Caribbean Writer’s Marguerite Cobb McKay Prize to a writer who is a resident of the Virgin Islands.