My brother and I used to spend our summers at our grandmother’s home in Kwara state. Before we were born, she had been called Tanimola, one who knows the future. She lived in an old wooden farmhouse on the edge of Saare village and was known to have once been a juju priestess. She kept chickens and a big black dog to watch them. And if sometimes she still cast fertility charms on young brides, well, that was between her and the spirits. So, to answer your question: yes. We knew what dwelled in the iroko-tree. What happened to me was not the fault of my grandmother.
The morning of the sixth of August, my grandmother fried akara in a heavy pot snapping with palm oil. I made her sit down and served the small fat cakes myself.
“Am I so old?” my grandmother grumbled. But she ate with relish. Taiwo came out of our room and grabbed the two fattest pieces. Grandmother sucked her teeth when he passed. He had hardly spoken a word to us all summer. Taiwo blinked, and for a second he looked more than annoyed—almost angry. Then he grinned, and he was Taiwo again. My older twin brother, who’d always been my best friend.
“Good morning, Grandmother,” he said. She gave him a withering look and waved him out the door. Then she turned to me. I saw the creases of effort around her eyes as she smiled.
“Would you like to hear a story?” she asked.
It was a story I knew by heart. I let my mind wander as I listened. The iroko-man lived in the iroko-tree. He came out when the moon was full and drove men wild with rage and murder. Girls died at his roots, and boys hung from his branches. Then they became iroko-men
themselves. But one day there would be three signs, and the iroko tree would grow silent and still.
“Why?” I had asked my grandmother, once.
“When you love yourself and love to live, you could stand rooted in one place forever. I could have done it, when I was a girl. But the signs never came.”
In the evening, the air grew thick and heavy. It settled in my hair and coated my tongue. The thunderclouds were practically begging to rain.
“Kehinde,” my grandmother called. I rose from the mattress I shared with my brother and went to her. She was in the big room—the one that wasn’t so large in the daylight, but seemed to go on for miles at night.
“Come here, Kehinde,” said my grandmother. She was in her rocking chair in the corner, blanketed completely in shadows. I knelt at her feet and kissed her hand.
“Ẹ kú alẹ́ ,” I said. It was a good evening. Quiet and still, like me. Restless and wild, like Taiwo, part of me whispered.
“Kehinde,” my grandmother said for the third time. I looked into her eyes and recoiled. She stared through me, unseeing. Her mouth trembled, and her hand shook where I clutched it in mine.
“The iroko-tree is watching. He knows it’s time. Stay away!” she cried. Then she moaned and shivered. As I watched, she shrunk. Her head nodded down to her chest.
“I’ll stay away. I will.” I held her hand until she fell asleep, then padded back to my bedroom as quietly as I could. Taiwo returned just before dawn. He was quiet, but his panting breath was loud. He sat at the edge of the bed for a long, long time. Did he know I was awake?
“Taiwo,” I whispered, “are you alright?” He jolted.
“Go back to sleep, stupid girl,” he said, his voice rough. I made a small noise of surprise, then quieted. It did not occur to me that he had said it in Yoruba, that Taiwo did not even speak Y oruba.
You might think me foolish for missing the first sign. The second was harder to miss. That morning, as I went out to feed the chickens, I found my grandmother’s dog in the yard with its head missing. There were iroko leaves in its fur. I observed this as if from far away.
Time went by.
My grandmother found me kneeling by the body, screaming without making a sound. She held me and took me away. One look had told her what I had already guessed: the iroko-man had found a host. Grandmother spent the day in the kitchen, cooking up a counter- curse. But we both knew even her juju was no match for the iroko-man. I buried the dog. There was a buzzing in my ears, under my skin. The air was almost shimmery with anticipation of rain. I imagined the gathering storm clouds felt the same way I did. Eventually, I gave in. I crept deep into the forest that surrounded my grandmother’s house to find the iroko-tree.
The tree was the tallest thing for miles, gnarled and dark, planted in the coldest corner of the forest. I crawled through stinging clumps of bushes towards it. As my eyes adjusted, I saw my brother. He was nailing the head of my grandmother’s dog to the tree. Small sharp leaves fell from its branches and settled in his hair. He paused and wiped his brow, then scanned the forest. For a moment, his eyes met mine. They were not my brother’s eyes. The eyes of the iroko-man were clear and utterly empty.
That was the third sign. I stumbled away, then vomited in a clump of bushes.
This is the part I regret most. If I had been stronger, I could have admitted what I already knew: there was only going to be one ending to this story. I couldn’t change that. But I could have said goodbye. Instead, I went straight to bed and fainted.
I woke late in the night. Heat lightning flashed in the distance, and the air was heavy and cold. I was alone in the house. Had my cowardice cost me my grandmother, as well as my brother? I ran as fast as I could, deep into the bush, to the resting-place of the iroko-tree.
They were both there. Iroko-man clutched a paring knife in my brother’s hand. Our grandmother was bound at his feet, struggling wildly.
“Iroko-man,” I shouted. My brother’s body turned toward me. My grandmother screamed at me to run, and I suddenly knew why. I’d known why all summer. I knew the words of this story by heart. My eyes welled up, and it began to rain.
“You are so old and so angry,” I said in Yoruba. The words poured over my tongue like water. “I’m silent. I’m still. I don’t love to live, not yet, but I’ll try. Let Taiwo go. I’ll take your place.”
I went to my brother, and took his hand for the last time. He blinked like a man waking from a dream as the iroko-man appeared before us, a vast dark shadow. He smiled, then disappeared. My arms stretched towards the rain clouds, and my feet plummeted deep into the earth. As my brother carried my weeping grandmother away, millions of sparkling raindrops settled in my branches.
I wanted to go to them, but I am rooted here, forever safe and forever stable. I live forever and I love to live. I am the iroko-tree.