A Natural History of Briefly Gorgeous Vegetables

If this was my father’s story to tell, what would he tell you? Maybe our family history, beginning the year my ancestors, tree people who lived in tree houses, migrated to the Capital and built a house of expensive volcanic stone. Perhaps he would mix in a bit of the country. Talk about the time the Government’s coffers dried out and they gave us the Agrarian Decree that committed all trees to the mints. Or further along when a grandaunt who left for Shoprite to shop for sanitary pads took a detour that ended in her lover’s loins.
A mob had gathered behind them as her lover, walking her back home at night, clung to her waist like she was tissue paper and the wind could lift her and toss her in a different era. The mob lynched the lovers and left their bodies by a curbside at the junction down the road from the family house. When the family arrived at the scene the morning after, they found the lover’s body and a tree beside it—root growing deep into the tar, foliage staring down the sky. They broke down and wept against its green bark.
The Government came with chainsaws to carry my grandaunt to the mint. They branded my great-grandmother, the matriarch at the time, who tried to stop them an enemy of state and shot her dead. The family buried her in the basement of the volcanic house.
This was the story father told me the morning I clocked thirteen. History, he called it. He fell silent after. The scraping sound of sandpaper on wood continued as he smoothed the skin of the elephant statuette he had carved for me. Working by the illumination of an open window, the light in his face, he looked older than he was at the beginning of his story. Like telling it had wizened him.
He held the statuette to the light, completed the smoothing with two sharp strokes and said, Ah! Look at that. Happy birthday, son! He gave me the elephant. My face must have blushed open like sunflowers because father looked at me and I could tell that it pleased him. The steady sound of water dripping somewhere replaced the scraping of wood. The volcanic house was never silent. It spoke when father and son slept and whispered when we were awake.
He said, You know no one can see that.
I nodded. Where did Father get wood though? Woods had become so rare. The Government came for them the moment they bore their first fruits and possession of a wood-based product was a capital offence. Even farmers did not bother with trees anymore—They are too much trouble, they said.
That was why he told me these stories, to remind me that our private world ended at our gate and a more dangerous one began right there. I lingered at his feet, turning the toy between my fingers and waiting for him to continue the story when three boys materialised at our gate. Seven, Lami and Sogo: my friends from the neighbourhood. They lived in houses of more modern technology that mocked the volcanic ancientness of our house. Lami and Sogo, brothers, lived in a house of curtain wall facades down the close. Seven lived in a grander conceptual house shaped to look like a guitar in the new estate a few lanes away. His father worked with the Government and named him Seven because he had to hurry to work at seven AM on the day of his christening and that fact colonised his mind.
Your friends are calling, father said. He must have noticed my scrunched up nose because he added, Playtime becomes rarer the older you get. The need to make money claims your soul.
I arose.
I pocketed my toy, hiding it carefully from sight, and went to meet the boys, becoming the fourth of them. So, four boys giggled into the street, seeking mischief in a land filled with it. Lami tickled laughter into my mouth. We sang, more like chanted, birthday songs, cleaving the diabolic silence of the close with our fine-edged voices. We skipped stones on the tarmac. We threw pebbles onto house roofs. We toyed with the alarms of houses whose owners were at work to set the dogs off and sprinted.
When we got bored with running from tethered barks, we trundled to the community playground, the only unpaved sand patch available for miles where Lami said, Let us play Ice and Water.
We don’t have enough people for that, I noted.
Let us fight Smackdown, Seven said, already unbuttoning his shirt. I didn’t like fighting but Lami flexed his muscles beside Seven, Sogo kicked the air at my side, and I had no choice except to crack my knuckles in preparation. The alternative was to back out and get called a wussy. No choice there.
Lami lunged at me. He had long, spindly legs and tried to trip me with them while his fists stretched and contracted before my face. He hit me across the chest; I winced and lost composure for a split second. All the time he needed for his feet to interact with mine and throw me to the ground. A proper wrestler, say Seven or Sogo, complete with a desire to hurt, would succeed this move by stuffing the fallen with sand or with an equally humiliating action. Lami, more concerned with finesse, stood back and pranced, waiting for me to stand, underlining his own brilliance. I caught snapshots of Seven and Sogo, limbs tangled around each other. Both fought dirty. That was common knowledge. But Seven, who had size on his side, soon fell Sogo and straddled him, his bulk immobilising his opponent into surrender.
Now, it was Seven and Lami against me. I held out for a few minutes but ended up beneath fat Seven who pulled off my shorts and wielded it like a flag after Lami tripped me again. The elephant tumbled out of my shorts—and time, in its cinematic, imperceptible manner, froze.
Wood! That was Lami exclaiming. Seven snatched it from his hands, his eyes expanded.
Real wood?
I don’t know.
Where did you see it? The wood had shocked quiet, reflective Sogo into speech. I snatched my toy from the boys and recognising trouble’s approach, I did the only thing I could: I ran. But it was only a matter of time. The mechanism of time locked back into motion, my life caught between its teeth, headed towards the nadir.
Father started a tirade, most of it ricocheting off the walls of my chest, swallowed by the air between us, when I told him they had found my wooden elephant out. Fear had saturated my body, it wasn’t open to receipt. He sighed, wrapped his body around mine and engulfed me with the smell of flora. He smelled less human every year, his skin colouring green and falling off sometimes. I had decided this had something to do with the volcanic house.
The Government will come. My watch is ending, and yours is beginning, he said. I think he forgot mostly that I was a mere adolescent, too half-witted for his profundity. You need to be ready for what comes next. Ask me anything.
My confusion was palpable. So was father’s impatience, but it was my curiosity that found a compass first. What happened to my mother? I asked.
I had asked the wrong question. I knew it because father took a drawn out breath before he answered. But my curiosity for this one piece of information trumped the logic of right questions. The answer when it came was anticlimactic. It invalidated the many nights I stayed up imagining provocative deaths for my mother.
She left, he announced blandly, without his face or tone of voice giving away how he felt about her leaving or the manner of leaving. The heartbreak smarted. It leapt on my chest and would cling to it for a long time until more ambitious kinds of sorrow unseated it and carved up its space for themselves. No further questions for now.
The Government came, Seven and his father in the lead like guide dogs. They came armed. They came hard. But before they did, father rolled the mud-red Persian rug off our living room floor and a trapdoor emerged. A stepladder led into its deep, dingy, volcanic belly, the basement, and we fell into what I would soon learn was the living dead’s part of the house. The basement was a tomb in the semantic sense but not in the operative. A tomb would hold bones and rotten flesh (or the smell of it) and soiled fabrics offset many shades from their original white and cobwebs thick as a hag’s hair and death (and its reflection). Not this tomb. When I set my feet down, they got lost in a watery, papery thicket. The air, chill and crisp with forest smells, milked my nose of mucus, it became runny. The basement smell was familiar. It was the scent of father’s body. But escalated.
Father flipped a switch. A floodlight filled the tomb with a blinding silver brightness that caused my eyes to shutter and water. And for the first—and last—time in my life, I beheld a wild community of flora, stalking right at the rigid circumference of existence, without affection from the sun or camaraderie with the soil. They grew fat in the dark underground, branches weaving into each other, raining leaves and windfalls that burst and suffused the space with a potpourri of smells. Berry. Oilseed. Grape. Persimmon. And father began introductions.
Auntie Sola was a fig tree. Uncle Abdul, a palm tree. Baby grandpa Howard, a jacaranda. Cousin Yetunde, cherry. Grandpa, walnut… I felt giddy. It was too much for me to comprehend. Father was too eager for me to meet the family to notice that I was at a loss and hyperventilating. We came to a willow that looked like a coven. Like the heads of hundreds of great old witches put together. The thin branches hung so far down they seemed to share a secret with the volcanic floor. Yet the tree reached high. Aphids patrolled the bright green foliage, buzzing about but never settling on it as if afraid it’d consume them. It stood alone on a rock at the far back of the tomb. Somehow, I knew without being told, this was my great-grandmother, the matriarch from History, the one who dared to resist the Government. And when I stood at her front, I felt her exhale in my face.
It was in that moment at thirteen—eyes on what predated me, fear in my heart and breath knocked out my lungs—that I came closest to being like God. The geometry of my existence unravelled itself and I knew I was a disruption. That is why when father stuffed my backpack with his life’s savings and said, Go! I didn’t ask questions. I kept travelling until the Queen’s English of my countrymen gave way to curious French off alien tongues.
I was thirty and living in my fifth country of residence when I decided to return to the Capital. I’d had a dream—not a dream really, if you consider that I was high on LSD—in which I saw father for the first time since I’d left. His face was rotting and peeling as he stood staring out of the window of a castle. He tilted his head to the sky as if in prayer, like he was channelling the energy of the sun. All he could see beyond the castle wall was water; a sea that went out to meet the sky at the horizon. The Government had imprisoned him on an island. He thought about how he was never let out and no one ever visited his cell—and that was fine because he was nothing like any other person in the facility. Not the prisoners, not the jailers.
Everything was green inside his seclusion cell. Leeches overran the walls, the floor by algae and the bars vines. His eyes were a sharp green, like emerald stones, and when he turned away from the sun abruptly to inspect the hamsters pecking at his green feet, they glinted.
I returned to sobriety filled with sadness and a sudden urge to return to the volcanic house of my childhood. To stand in the tomb and inhale deeply as a willow exhaled in my face. But my home had moved on in my absence. The journey back to the Capital was long. Way longer than I remembered. I guess even distance distends in the face of a homecoming. The Capital was a city of polarities: Mountains poked the sullen face of the sky on one side and the Atlantic filled the opposite with the smell of dead dreams. Skyscrapers stood like knights in the space between, berating the more modest buildings. Men pushed past themselves and crushed everything below underfoot.
The Government had taken over the volcanic house, turned it into a hotel and given a pimp charge over it. Sadness descended on my shoulders like a vulture, pecking at me until I contemplated death. The pain of losing a home isn’t much different from the pain of losing a lover, you know, even if you have been absent from it for most of your life.
A fading banner sporting naked women introduced my childhood home as Hotel del Volcan, its volcanic walls cracked, doors of heavy metal slanting on their hinges, windowpanes missing, and the Persian rug on the floors worn almost invisible by foot traffic. The pimp, thinking I was a punter, gave me a tour of the hotel: A strip club—as welcome—in the expansive passageway with poles installed, opened into the rooms; the living room was neutral ground; booty merchants in father’s bedroom; cuddlers in my bedroom; oral services in another room—Strictly oral, the pimp said; the kitchen with its racks, bars and worktops for bondage; threesome specialists here; fetish experts there. The rooms on the upper floor were reserved, in case you brought your own entertainment.
But what goes on in the basement? I asked.
The pimp drew his head backward to examine me more critically before asking, How do you know about the basement?
I stuttered at first. But the lie jumped out, Hotel del Volcan is a legend, people whisper about a tomb in the basement.
He nodded vigorously. There’s nothing there. All that is fiction, he said then led me down the stepladder in the living room, anyway. The basement was dark, damp and empty. I had doubted my memory in the years since. I had wondered if the trees in the basement, growing into the floor of volcanic stone, without the sun, subsisting on nothing, were a trick of my imagination. But now, retracing my steps through it from memory—from the only time I had been in the tomb before—soaked in nostalgia, I felt another chapter of History begin.
Do you want to rent it out? I asked.
He looked irritated. Why? He queried. What do you want it for?
I said, I need a private space like this for my trade. I’m a gigolo. Like Casanova, but for the money.
He said I had the looks. That I was the type of boy his wife would have cheated on him with if she had not died cheating with another boy the previous year.
I didn’t believe him when he said that. Women don’t go around looking for sex, do they? I’d thought there’d be no clients for me. I’d lied to him so he would let me turn the space where my family’s dead resurrected as trees into a home. But I’d barely settled into my new home when the pimp showed up, you my first client—an unmarried thirty-nine-year-old woman—behind him. You had diligently worked your way unto the Government’s payroll as the Head of Civil Services.
You said you wanted kids but not a husband, intimacy but not commitment, memories but not necessarily attachment, and you’d pay for it if you had to so you had come to the strapping gigolo as advertised by the pimp. I sighed. To myself I said, Man, this is the cost of keeping in touch with your beloved History. And to you, My body is yours to do with as you wish. So you rode me like a wooden horse. Rode me so hard I could have snapped like an olive twig beneath the weight of a hawk. So hard that of the quarter century I’ve spent peddling my body in the basement that first time is distinct in my memory the way a whale out of water would be.
But God save your children—the three who share my vegetable genes—when your Government comes at them with chainsaws after they grow old and die and instead of decaying silently and disappearing from memory, they resurrect as exotic trees, reaching into every corner of the earth, into this tale my father called History, briefly gorgeous.


Oh, that’s where my parents used to—Grandma cuts off her sentence, spins around and starts again, climbing the stairs towards us. “That’s where my parents put me during storms.”

The Orange Tree

Slaves, who did not volunteer to board the ships of chains and salts, and whose legacy casts a shadow much longer and darker than the fern, are not physically in this photo, yet their contribution is loud.

Origin Stories

My black is a story of night and day.
My black is a story of mud and clay.