PodCastle 760: INDIGENOUS MAGIC – The Tree Whisperer

Show Notes

Rated PG-13


The Tree Whisperer

by Oluwatomiwa Ajeigbe

 

The trees are getting restless. I walk down the beaten forest path, trying my best to ignore their murmurs, but they are too many and their words crowd my mind.

The green will perish . . .

You must warn the people . . .

Call down the wrath of Ileh . . .

I do not reply to any of them. They will only slow me down if I do, and I must be back in the village before nightfall. I duck under a low-hanging branch and crawl till I emerge in a clearing. At the far end stands a tall iroko tree, the oldest in the forest and the leader of the trees: Auzyvre, the tree that was planted by Ileh herself.

Kola.

Auzyvre’s voice is deeper than the voices of the other trees, and immediately as they speak, the entire forest falls quiet. They wave their leaves gently, even though there is no wind. Somewhere in their tall branches, a bird sings an ode to the ending day. I incline my head respectfully when I reach their base and a fresh green leaf falls to my feet, a sign of approval and acceptance.

“Auzyvre. I come with news,” I say.

I can feel the other trees tensing, their branches quivering with anticipation. Auzyvre betrays no emotion like the others, but I can tell that they’re expectant as well.

What news do you bring from the world of men?

“Tarim won’t send the foreigners away,” I say.

The trees howl in disappointment. Yellowed leaves fall to the ground all around me. Their branches shake aggressively and I can feel the ground rumbling a little as some of them move their roots, threatening to rip them out of the earth in their anger.

Enough! Enough!

Auzyvre’s voice cuts through the din, and gradually the trees quiet down. When the last yellow leaf has fallen and the earth has stopped trembling, Auzyvre speaks again.

Kola, you know what will happen if the foreigners do not leave. You know what we must do.

I know. I know what they must do. People will be hurt, or worse. They have done it before, but I cannot let them do it again. The last time the trees acted, innocent people died. This time, if anyone should suffer at all, it should be the ones who have betrayed the earth only.

“Tarim plans to address all of us tomorrow morning at the village square,” I say. “I will try to persuade him then.”

Good. We thank you, Kola. You are a good man. May Ileh be with you.

I bow. “May Ileh be with you.”

Then I turn and walk out of the clearing, guided back to the village by the birds singing to welcome the night.


Jimi is waiting for me outside my hut.

He is seated on a bench, dressed in his hunting leathers. His bag of traps lies at his feet, as does his dog Nabi, who raises his head as I approach before returning to his canine dreams. A long knife strapped to Jimi’s slim waist is the only weapon on him. When I draw closer, he gets to his feet and spreads open his arms. I smile and embrace him, inhaling his smell of boiled leather and animal skin and several other wonderful things. He smells like a hunter; I draw a deep breath before pulling away.

“You tarried in the woods,” Jimi says. “I was beginning to worry.”

“The trees were not pleased,” I say as we both sit on the bench. “They want the foreigners gone. Or else . . . ”

A frown creases Jimi’s face. He lays a strong hand over my own.

“Did they hurt you?” he asks.

“No, no,” I say, smiling.

I try not to glance down at his legs. He hasn’t always been a hunter. For as long as I have known him, Jimi’s dream has been to be a warrior, part of the group of trained men who keep the village safe. He rose through the ranks quickly and caught the eye of Tarim, our leader. Jimi was made a captain of the village’s warriors, and many whispered that someday he could even be the new leader after Tarim.

But all that changed last summer. Jimi was out scouting in the woods and climbed a tree so he could see anyone approaching the village. It was a position he had taken several times; nested in the top branches of a tall tree, he would be hidden from the view of anyone on the ground. But on that day, he stepped on a weak branch and fell. The other scouts found him and brought him to the apothecary. That was how we met. I nursed him back to health, but the bones in his legs were damaged permanently. He would be able to walk with a limp, but he couldn’t fight anymore. He became a hunter.

“Oh,” he says. “I’m sorry. I just don’t trust the trees.”

“I understand,” I say.

We sit in companionable silence for a while, listening to the crickets and staring at the stars.

“You will talk to Tarim tomorrow, won’t you?” Jimi asks.

I nod.

“Be careful. You know Tarim. He’s too stubborn.”

I smile and place a hand under his chin, turning his face to me. “You worry too much,” I say.

Jimi opens his mouth to say something else, but I kiss him before he can speak, and whatever words were travelling up his throat turn into moans. His strong callused hands run up under the hem of my shirt and caress my chest. He pinches a nipple, drawing a grunt of pleasure from my lips.

I break the kiss and look into his deep brown eyes.

“You want to come in?” I ask, breathless.

Jimi smiles and stands up, turning toward the door of my hut. He stretches out a hand to me. I take it, and let him pull me to my feet.


The village square is filled to capacity. Everyone is here, including the hunters and farmers who usually leave the village at first light to check on their traps and farms. The traders are here, the priests, the jobless drunks, everybody.

Jimi stands beside me, gripping my hand tightly. He is dressed in one of my shirts, which is obviously too tight for him. He spent the night at my place and didn’t bring a change of clothes. I try hard not to stare at his bulging muscles as we wait for Tarim’s arrival. If I admire my lover too much, I may be distracted from the task the trees have given to me.

Tarim’s arrival sends a ripple of apprehension through the crowd, and I immediately see why: Tarim isn’t alone on the podium. Two of the foreigners are with him. They are immediately distinguishable, since they look so different from us. While everyone in my village has brown skin and eyes, the foreigners have hair that looks so pale it is almost bleached white. Their complexion is milky, the direct opposite of ours. Also, their eyes are a glacial blue that immediately made me distrust them the first time I saw them. There is something about their eyes that puts me on guard whenever I’m around any of them.

The foreigners appeared in our village without warning. One day they weren’t here, and then they were. They speak our language with a strange lilting accent. I have heard them conversing in their own tongue before, a nasal language that makes me wonder how they understand each other.

They have been with us for a full moon, trying to convince Tarim to give them permission to work in the forest. According to them, there is a diamond mine underneath the earth somewhere in the woods. They are promising Tarim a lot of wealth if they are allowed to dig. They have already enticed him with rare and expensive gifts, like the pure white stallion tethered to the front of his hut. I have even heard rumours that one of the female foreigners shares his bed every night. According to the rumourmongers, lying with foreigners is different from normal lovemaking.

This is a meeting for the people of the village. The presence of the foreigners can only mean one thing. I fear that it might be too late to stop Tarim.

“People of Odua Village,” Tarim says, his booming voice reaching every ear in the square. “I have called you here this morning to give you feedback concerning the matters we have discussed before. As you all know, we have visitors who have come to us from distant lands. They seek something we have in abundance: diamonds. We do not have the means to extract them from the earth, but our visitors do. They promise to make us rich and with that wealth, we shall turn this village into a prosperous town!”

Tarim grins maniacally, and to my dismay I see many people nodding at his words, most of them young men. If the villagers give their final approval, it is done. The mining will begin. And then the trees would have to do again what they have done only once before . . .

“This is unacceptable.”

The words come from a wizened old man close to the podium. He is leaning on a stick, dressed in the white garment of the priests. A necklace of cowries hangs from his neck. I recognize him as Oluwo, the oldest man in the village and the chief priest at the shrine of Ileh, goddess of the earth.

“What do you speak of, Baba?” Tarim says, keeping his tone polite, though there is a fierce look in his eyes.

“You cannot desecrate Ileh’s earth this way,” Oluwo says. “The earth gives out of her boundless mercy. Nothing can be wrested from her grasp. To attempt this would be tantamount to self-sabotage.”

Tarim laughs loudly, and a good number of the young men laugh as well. Oluwo doesn’t speak. He just shakes his head in resignation.

“I have something to say.”

My voice surprises even me, but I know this is the right moment to speak up. Jimi squeezes my hand reassuringly, and I squeeze back.

“Well, healer, what do you have to say?” Tarim says, a scowl on his face.

I tell myself to remain calm as I meet his fierce expression. Tarim leads the village with an iron fist and he doesn’t like any form of resistance. I choose my words carefully.

“Oluwo is right. The forest cannot be defiled.”

“And why is this? Did you see a vision in a bundle of herbs?” he mocks. The sycophants laugh again.

“I have spoken to the trees,” I say, yelling over the noise. “And they are not happy. If this mining is attempted, they will destroy the village once again!”

Tarim raises a hand for silence, and the laughter and chatter die away instantly. He turns his glare on me once more.

“The trees talk?” he says. “We are adult men. Get out of here with that midwives’ tale.”

“It is not a midwives’ tale. It is real.”

Beside me, Jimi steps forward. I look at him incredulously. He is usually quiet in gatherings like this even though I’ve told him countless times that he needs to speak up more.  He is staring at Tarim as if daring him to keep doubting my words.

“Ah, Jimi,” Tarim says. “Don’t tell me you believe this nonsense.”

“I believe it. Kola speaks the truth.”

Jimi’s voice rings through the square. I can see people paying attention; there is an air of authority around him that makes people want to listen to him.

“We have heard of the earthquakes,” Jimi says. “Our ancestors were too stubborn. They wanted to cut down the forest for the treasures in its depths, but this angered the trees.”

Tarim smirks. “This meeting is adjourned,” he says in his usual dismissive manner. “The mining will begin in three days.”

I watch him leave, followed by the two silent foreigners. The trees will not be pleased.


The trees are not pleased.

It is night. The gibbous moon looks down on the chaotic forest, illuminating the clearing. I am standing in the midst of a mini-earthquake caused by the trees. I am not sure if the trembling of the earth can be felt back in the village. The trees express their wrath as well as they can, dropping yellowed leaves to the ground and vibrating their roots. I know they must still be employing some restraint, because if they weren’t, I would be buried under the earth by now.

Enough.

Auzyvre’s command cuts through the night like a sword, and there is instant silence. The other trees freeze under the weight of the eldest tree’s will. I can feel the power of Auzyvre’s mind in the sudden stillness. According to what they told me the first time they spoke to me, Auzyvre had been planted by Ileh at the beginning of the world and watered with the goddess’s tears. They had grown in an instant, an immortal tree in the midst of a grove of normal trees. In a way, I suppose Auzyvre is a god as well.

Kola has done nothing to offend us, Auzyvre says to the silent trees. Rather, it is the greedy Tarim and these foreigners we should be angry with.

Until Kola found us, no man could hear our voice. The mark of Ileh is on him. He is her priest. We cannot hurt him.

“I live in the village,” I say. “You cannot save yourselves while refusing to hurt me at the same time. There are people I care about who could get hurt, innocent people who are not on the side of the foreigners. How would you keep them safe as well?”

Stretch forth your palm.

I obey.

One of Auzyvre’s branches dips, and a broad leaf deposits something into my hand. When I raise it to the bright moonlight, I see that I am holding three red seeds. As a healer, I work with seeds and herbs all the time but I have never seen this type of seed before.

Those are parada seeds, given to me by Mother Ileh herself. They are seeds of the deathflower.

“Deathflower?” I hold the seeds at arm’s length and eye them warily.

Fear not. They will not hurt you.

“What am I supposed to do with them?” I ask.

When you return to the village, cast them on the ground and tell them to protect the forest. They will know what to do.

I sigh and close my hands into fists. Auzyvre has promised not to destroy the village and I believe their words. But what if these seeds translate my words wrongly and protect the forest by destroying the village?

Auzyvre must have read the doubt on my face.

Fear not. You shall not be harmed. The deathflower seeds have the will of the earth. They shall follow whatever purpose your heart desires.

“All right,” I say. “May Ileh be with you.”

May Ileh be with you.


The village sleeps.

I take a deep breath as I look out at the darkened huts. There may be no going back from this. I do not know what the deathflower seeds will do, but I know the trees won’t hurt anyone who doesn’t deserve it. Also, Auzyvre said these seeds are from Ileh herself. The earth would never hurt her own children, not unless they betray her first.

I toss the seeds to the ground.

“Protect the village,” I say.

At once, the seeds grow before my eyes — not into trees but into monsters.

The three things standing before me are vaguely humanoid, but where they should have legs, instead they have roots. Their hands end in sharpened points for each finger and their heads . . . they aren’t there at all. When I look upward, all I see is darkness: clouds of formless darkness that turn to glare at me, even though they have no eyes that I can see.

Ileh’s servant. We shall obey you.

I blink and they are gone, melted into the night.


Jimi’s excited voice wakes me from sleep. “You have to see this!”

I open my eyes and look up at him. He is fully dressed, with awe and fear in his eyes.

“What happened?” I ask.

“Come!” he says again before leaving the hut. I rise from the bed and follow at a slower pace.

Outside, there is nothing but chaos. People run around, all in different stages of undress. I frown and look around. Some people are obviously packing. I do not see any of the foreigners.

“Hey, what happened?” I ask Jimi.

“Tarim . . . the foreigners . . . ” he says.

I think about the seeds and the monsters that sprang from them. “What happened to them?”

“They are all missing. Nothing left, except . . . ”

I wait for him to continue.

“I think you should see for yourself,” he says.

I follow him through the chaos until we reach Tarim’s hut. At the entrance, I see the first heap of leaves. They are dry and yellow, sucked of life. A chill runs down my spine as I realize that this heap was once a man. There are more leaves inside the hut but no people.

“Is it like this in the tents of the foreigners as well?” I ask.

“Yes, my love. Nothing but leaves, leaves everywhere. Dry and yellowed.”

I nod.

“You seem quite relaxed,” Jimi says. “Was this your doing?”

“Hardly. It was the trees. I am just the messenger.”

My lover stares at me. I grin and tap his cheek.

“The people are scared and confused,” I say. “They will need a leader, someone to bring order out of all this. I think you should address them.”

“But what will I say?”

“That’s left to you,” I say. “Just don’t tell them your very handsome boyfriend let a trio of tree monsters loose to eat Tarim and the foreigners.”

Jimi chuckles and kisses me. I kiss him back, trying to keep him from noticing the uncertainty on my face.

“Go,” I whisper.

I watch him walk toward the podium at the centre of the village and I feel a sudden wave of pride. I do not fully understand what happened to Tarim and his friends, but the trees are safe. The village is safe.

I take a deep breath and turn toward the forest. Maybe it’s just a trick of the light, but I think I see Auzyvre’s branches waving at me from the magical clearing. It shouldn’t be possible to see the clearing from this distance, but Auzyvre is a god-tree, so they must have opened my third eye somehow. I smile and wave back. Out of nowhere, a fresh green leaf falls to my feet. I pick it up and turn to follow my lover to the village square, and to a new chapter of our lives.


Host Commentary

That was THE TREE WHISPERER by OLUWATOMIWA AJEIGBE, and that was his first time featuring in an Escape Artists podcast, although he is a first reader over at Escape Pod; if you enjoyed that story, then, we’d recommend checking out Harvest Moon at Solarpunk Magazine and Illusions of Freedom at Baffling Magazine, as well as following him on Twitter @oluwasigma to know when those forthcoming stories are out–it looks like there’s a few in the pipeline.

Oluwatomiwa sent us these notes on this story: Growth and love are essential parts of all my works. This story is a perfect example of what I consider a good story. There is visible growth but also there is growth that is unseen, just below the surface. There is also love and warmth and firm resolve. I wrote this with a lot of emotions jumbled together and I’m glad it eventually turned out great.

Thank you, Oluwatomiwa, for the notes and the story. It says a lot about our world and our history that in putting out a call for Indigenous Magic stories, resistance to colonialism ended up as such a recurrent theme, as you’ll see through this month. Centuries passed still echo and resonate today, and shape our imaginations, and inform our worldviews. We cannot, and must not, pretend that our imperial histories and cruelties are irrelevant today simply because “we” didn’t enact it; those of us in positions of privilege by virtue of birth still benefit from the crimes of our ancestors and the structures they forced upon the world. I am recording this from the home island of the most exploitative empire in history. I may never have visited Africa or the Caribbean, nor lived contemporaneously with the British Empire, but I still benefit every day from having been born in a country that enriched itself from the natural resources of other countries–and not just materials dug from the earth, of course, but slaves stolen from it too. The impact of that history is precisely why fiction such as this, such as we’re showcasing this month, is so important. It might seem a small way of influencing the world, but stories not only reveal who we are and how we feel, but teach us who we should be, too. Almost the first thing we do with children is tell them stories! It is how we explain the world to those brand new to it! To quote the incomparable Terry Pratchett, “Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.” We hope you’ll stick around this month and hear the fantasies we have to share with you; and we hope they’ll change the world, too, even if only a little bit.

About the Author

Oluwatomiwa Ajeigbe

Oluwatomiwa Ajeigbe is writer of the dark and fantastical, a poet and a reluctant mathematician. He has poetry and fiction published or forthcoming in F&SF, FANTASY Magazine, Solarpunk Magazine, Baffling Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine and elsewhere. When he’s not writing about malfunctioning robots or crazed gods, he can be found doing whatever people do on Twitter at @oluwasigma. He writes from a room with broken windowpanes in Lagos, Nigeria.

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About the Narrator

Somto Ihezue

Somto lives in Lagos with his sister, their dog; River, and their cats; Ify and Salem. He is a big movie geek, a runner, and a wildlife enthusiast. A fan of white-soled shoes and heavy rainfall, he also fantasizes about becoming a high supreme witch. His works have appeared or are forthcoming in Tordotcom, Omenana Magazine, and others. Follow him on Twitter @somto_ihezue where he tweets about his bi-monthly quarter-life crisis, among things.

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About the Artist

Cindy Fan

Cindy Fan (she/her) is an illustrator and night owl who specializes in bringing stories to life in a dreamy and thoughtful manner for print and digital media. When she’s not drawing she loves walking slowly and aimlessly admiring the textures around her. Her work can be found at www.cind.ca

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