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The Tree: An Excerpt from a Novel by Chidi Jas Onyia

They came sometime in the morning. Very early. The sound of land rovers not obvious at first but once they veered off the bitumen road onto the sandy gravel of the market square the grinding crunch of the tyres left no one in doubt. It had started.

As I slipped out of my room onto the veranda my father was already there watching, listening. The gate opposite creaked open and two figures loomed for a moment ominously before disappearing into the morning mist. Then several figures seemed to hurry past, some communicating in frantic whispers others silent. My father’s voice told me to put on a sweater. It was cold.

He silenced my mother, her under wrapper about her shoulders like a cloak as she pleaded that I be left at home.

The centre of the market square had been cordoned off. The men from the Ministry of Works wore hard hats and yellow flashy jackets. From where I stood the great tree seemed even bigger, it seemed to lean towards us trying to cast its evil shadow over us, sending into the gathered crowd strange illnesses that would worry us, kill our poultry, blights that would wither our yams.

The foreman urged his crew to hurry as the climbers prepared to attach metal cables to the larger branches to direct its fall.

A screeching of hard hit brakes heralded the approach of a van blaring choruses from its loud speakers. For such a small van, a mighty congregation spilled out of it. Men and women dressed in white blouses and shirts wielding tambourines and cymbals. Pastor Chris reverently clambered onto the top of the van and began to address the assembly. As the congregation once again burst into song the officials ordered them behind the cordon. Somewhere along the line a shove was exchanged for a push, and then a slap and then hell broke loose. A woman was screaming and the dust  raised prevented me from seeing what was happening

There was a crack and a loud whirring sound. A metal cable from the higher branches had loosened from the grip of a distracted climber and like a shot it snaked out of the dark foliage reaching upwards above our heads. It hooked on the high tension cable that fed the whole village electricity from the transformer which in turn was supported by the massive power station at Hilltop. There was a blinding explosion as positive met positive. A cry of disbelief turned to terror as two hundred villagers took to their heels. The white shirts of the junior pastors mingled with the yellow jackets of the ministry workers in the ensuing melee.

The cable had swung through 360 degrees coming to rest inches above the mission van. Black smoke belched from the Michelin tyres as the van caught fire. The strong arms of my father snaked about my waist and threw me over a low fence into someone’s Ede farm. The final explosion as the full tank exploded sending twisted metal, ash and human remains everywhere.

At home I sat between my parents in silence. My father’s head bowed as he took in all my mother did not say. Her stony silence fraught with ‘I told you so’s’ hanging like tinsel and Christmas lights between them.

A week later I got up for school, I had a white bandage on my dislocated wrist. As I passed the market place I held my nose. The blackened shell of the van squatted like some unhumble insect in the centre of the empty square. Beyond seemingly larger than ever the tree stood.

Chidi Jas Onyia
Chidi Jas Onyia
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