Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Promises, empty, empty promises

There is a clearing near a river in the jungle which gets smaller each passing year. In the middle of this clearing is a marvelous tree which has the most beautiful flowers. Every day the flowers are more beautiful than the flowers were the day before.

Once there was a village where this clearing is now. It is far away from other villages. The people who lived there were slower, less fleet of foot, than other people. Most had made their way to this remote place and stayed because when you are slow-footed in a village of the swift the neighbours avert their eyes when you pass, and even your family suffers shame.

The villagers had gathered in that particular place because of a plain and very unremarkable tree that grew on the riverbank. It wasn't particularly tall, it didn't have lovely flowers or beautiful foliage, but it bore fruit year-round, day in and day out. It wasn't exciting fruit. It wasn't sweet, or spicy. It was bland, it was hard to peel, stringy and sometimes tough to digest, but it was nourishing and gave you strength to keep the jungle at bay. They didn't know what kind of tree it was, so they called it the gwehdee tree - the meal tree.

The villagers foraged for food in the surrounding jungle. Sometimes it was plentiful, usually it was scarce and you had to fight the monkeys and jungle pigs for it. But whatever the season they could depend on the gwehdee tree. Year in and year out it stood at the edge of the river bearing fruit. When the jungle provided not- quite-enough or when the jungle provided nothing; when every belly was empty as a drum, the villagers could always go to the gwehdee tree, lift a leaf and the food they needed would be at their fingertips. The tree was so dependable that it simply became part of the background.

Generations came and went... all as slow-footed as their forefathers had been. One day, after many years, another tree grew up, right in the centre of the village. It was a beautiful tree, with a graceful trunk and delicately beautiful leaves. Its flowers were simply magnificent. The entire village gathered around to admire it and speculate about what wonderful fruit was sure to come from such bewitching blossoms.

Through the weeks and months the flowers came, each one more beautiful and delightfully fragrant than the one before, but not a single flower ever produced a fruit. Once in a while a small green fruit would follow a flower, but within a few days it would shrivel, blacken and fall to the ground. But still the villagers were mesmerized by the beauty of the tree, and every day they sat around it and waited - certain that wonderful, delicious fruit would soon appear.

"I imagine it will taste like honey," one said to the other. "Oh," replied the next, "like honey with mango and peaches and jasmine, all together. We will certainly swoon with delight from the flavour." "The texture will be like the freshest date, as soft as green coconut," said another. "And we will be able to eat the peel!" cackled a toothless old woman, who was tired of a lifetime of peeling gwehdee fruit.

And so into the night they'd invent ever more fantastic flavours, textures, fragrances and attributes the fabulous fruit would surely have, when it ripened. And then they would go home with their growling, empty bellies and curse while eating roasted lizards and the stringy, bland and hard to digest but nourishing fruit of the gwehdee tree.

Meanwhile, at the edge of the village, the river had changed course. The gwehdee tree loved water more than almost anything, but the water the tree depended on had moved away. The tree grew thirsty, and longed for a pail or two of water from the river it could see glistening a hundred feet beyond its reach. But it was the fat season and fruit in the jungle was plentiful, so no one came to the gwehdee tree except some men who passed and remarked how ugly it was, compared to the beautiful tree in the centre of the village.

The heat shimmered above the river. Insects buzzed up and down on errands and little fish leaped from the water as they played tag with their hundreds of brothers and sisters. The river wandered even farther away. The gwehdee tree ached for water. The dryness burned in its leaves and rootlets. The pain crept down the stems and up the roots. Ever so slowly its inconspicuous flowers shriveled and fewer and fewer fruit formed under the shelter of the leaves. Still, no one noticed until one morning when a villager felt too ill to forage in the jungle and went to the gwehdee tree to gather some fruit and - there was none to gather.

Alarmed, the villagers ran to the gwehdee tree, but it was too late. The tree was dead. As the season turned from fat to lean and food in the jungle became scarce the villagers had little nourishment. Without the strength the gwehdee tree provided they were soon at the mercy of the jungle itself, which cares as little for the slow-footed as it does for the baby monkey who becomes the python's meal.

One by one the villagers disappeared. The little huts quickly fell into the mouths of the ants and termites and the waddling mother rat who carries away your best cloth as a nest for her young. It hardly mattered. There was no one left to care.

But even now in the centre of a rapidly closing clearing grows a lovely tree, with magnificent flowers, which will hold you spellbound with their promise...

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