Beneath Our Feet

By Erhu Amreyan third place winner in the United States Embassy Abuja 2017 World Environment Day Short Story Eco Writing Contest.

As my father and I arrived at Nri, a small village west of the metropolis of Canaan city where my grandfather lived I became extra excited. The last time I had been there was two years ago before my father was transferred to Ghana for a job. Now we were back and I could not wait to see the old man and go exploring with him. Nri was something out of a book about nature; with fresh water streams, a hidden waterfall, so many unique birds and a bright green that spread out for miles around my grandfather’s house. My father on the other hand was excited about something else. Well someone else. Mrs Wu. She was the daughter of my grandfather’s best friend. Before he passed away, Mrs. Wu’s father and my grandfather had bought the land on which their houses now stood, some hundred feet from each other.

Mrs. Wu who had lost her husband never remarried and always stayed in her father’s house during the holidays. She had entranced my widowed father the minute they laid eyes on each other after so many years apart. Apparently, he had loved her when they were still teenagers and those feeling had come rushing back. I liked Mrs. Wu. She was a lovely, kind woman and an excellent baker. Her chocolate cookies were the best I ever had.

‘’Your grandfather is going to be so happy to see you.’’ My father chuckled.

‘’I know.’’ I giggled imagining the look on the old man’s wrinkled face. ‘’I wonder if Mrs. Wu will spend the easter holiday here.’’ Some women with clay pots on their heads waved at my father as he rounded a bend. He removed one hand from the steering wheel and waved back.

‘’I wonder,’’ he said.

‘’You did not call her? You should…’’ I was saying when I saw it. Just a few miles from my grandfather’s house, were trucks carting away thick logs of wood. The entire area where some men loitered had been cleared and left looking like a desert.

‘’Dad, what is happening? Why are they taking away the trees?” My father mirrored my puzzled expression.

‘’I don’t know Themba.’’

‘’Granddad is not going to be happy about this at all. You know how connected he is to nature, literally. It affects him physically when it’s tampered with. Even I am connected. He said so.’’

‘’Again with that Themba?’’ My father shook his head disapprovingly. He never believed his father or me about just how linked we were to our surroundings. My grandfather could communicate with birds. He had shown that he could the last time I came to visit. It was the reason for his varied and up close photo collection of birds he had all over his house.

My father continued, ‘’Because your granddad can sometimes predict the weather does not mean he is connected to nature.’’

‘’But he is. We all are in one way or another.’’

‘’Themba it’s enough.’’ I stopped talking. My father did not understand.

I was right after all. The moment the car stopped in front of the terracotta bungalow, my grandfather came out of the house looking distraught.

‘’Jelani,’’ he called my father. ‘’Did you see what they are doing to our trees?’’

My father laughed in response. ‘’You look as if someone is dying.’’

‘’But something is dying.’’

‘’Jojo,’’ I called my grandfather by his nickname and walked over to hug him. He squeezed me tight and then held me at arms length. ‘’Jojo, I saw. What is happening?”

‘’They say they are from a furniture company. Had documents signed by government officials. So they are free to cut down the trees without thinking of the repercussions. The birds are almost gone. Yesterday I saw nests upon nests of shattered eggs on the ground. I want to start planting the trees back but they will not let me. They say I’m a senile nuisance.’’ By the time Jojo finished talking he was almost out of breath.

My father laughed again. He truly did not understand. That evening as Jojo prepared dinner in the wide open kitchen, Mrs. Wu came by to say hello with a basket of biscuits. My father acted awkwardly as he ushered her into the sitting room that could be easily seen from the kitchen.

‘’Jojo,’’ she called, ‘’I brought some biscuits.’’

‘’Mrs. Wu, it’s nice to see you again,’’ I told her leaning on the kitchen table.

‘’Themba, you look so grown up. How old are you now?’’

‘’12.’’

‘’You are already a woman.’’ She laughed sweetly glancing at my father who looked positively happy to see her again.

‘’Thanks for the biscuits,’’ I said to her going over to inspect the basket.

‘’Abidemi, thank you for the biscuits.’’ Jojo looked up at the woman and then back at his cooking. He poured some sliced tomatoes which he had gotten from his garden into the steaming pot of rice.

‘’Jojo you don’t look so happy,’’ Mrs. Wu observed sitting at the table with my father next to her.

‘’We are not happy,’’ I informed her.

‘’Is it because of the lumber people?’’ I nodded.

‘’These two nature lovers are just overreacting,’’ my father chimed in.

‘’I don’t think so,’’ said Mrs. Wu with a note of seriousness in her voice. ‘’We can’t deny that cutting down trees willy nilly without back up plans can do so much damage to the environment.’’

‘’What company do the men come from?’’ my father inquired bringing out his cell phone.

‘’A furniture company in Europe. They have been here for about a week.’’

I gasped. ‘’And they have already removed that much trees? I looked at Jojo who was now stirring the rice languidly. Somewhere in the twilight, a bird cawed sorrowfully.

Jojo in khaki, a loose shirt, brown boots and his favourite camera around his neck led me through the bushes to where we could still find some of the bigger trees. As we passed through the mahogany, Jojo touched the trees in our path and placed his hand on his heart. I mimicked his movement feeling my heart swell with a strange kind of joy.

He stopped after a while and closed his eyes. My smile widened and my heart beat faster knowing what he was about to do. There was a deathly quiet as I looked up at the swaying tree tops. Then their sounds echoed to announce their presence. The birds, in their hundreds flew in our direction covering us in an impressive divergence of colours. Their numbers had been more the last time I saw them. Jojo and I were right to be worried.

‘’You see,’’ Jojo’s eyes were open. ‘’You see what they have done. It’s only going to get worse if things continue like this.’’ He looked up dejectedly at a flock of weaver birds now circling above his head.

After taking the pictures he wanted, we ventured closer to where the men worked, their machines sounding so ominous. Jojo wanted to check on the closest stream where he had once found a strange type of fish. What we saw shocked us to our very core.

‘’No,’’ Jojo muttered painfully as he moved closer to what was left of the stream. The muddied water carried with it a few floating fishes. Obviously dead. My heart sank at the sight. Jojo turned around sharply. There was a ghastly sound and another tree fell.

‘’Jojo,’’ I called my grandfather not liking the way his face was scrunched up in animosity. He was livid. He trotted toward the men and went on to stand in front of a moving bulldozer while I stayed behind him.

“You!” He pointed at the driver who had stopped the monstrous machine in time and now looked furious. Jojo’s outstretched finger pointed at the other men coming around. “You! Can you not see what you are doing?” One of the men spoke rapidly into a walkie-talkie but I could hear the words ‘crazy old man’ clearly. Jojo carried on, ‘’Soon there will be no more birds here. They could all die. So many species gone and irreplaceable!’’ ‘It’s the crazy man’ ‘What is he doing here again?’ I heard some of the men talking about Jojo. ‘’You are poisoning the streams by removing the trees. The dirt can now easily flow there when it rains. The fishes cannot survive in that kind of water.”

The driver of the bulldozer came closer. ‘’Look old man,’’ he said taking off his cap, “we have work to do. You came here before saying nonsense and we showed you our permit. You better leave.”

‘’Don’t you care that you’re doing something wrong?’’ I asked despite my fear that the men might do something to us.

‘’You are both crazy. Leave here immediately.” The driver waved his hand at us to leave.

‘’We are not leaving until you stop cutting down trees and polluting our water. I will not let you continue.’’

One of the men at the back with bulging eyes and a nasty scowl shoved through the others to move forward. In his hands was a chainsaw. He turned it on and brandished it in Jojo’s face. He laughed mockingly when Jojo jerked back in fear. The other men joined him. I quickly moved to stand defensively in front of Jojo. The man with the saw lifted it up high and bawled, ‘’Go back to work! Cut down all the trees! These fools don’t know what they’re saying! Go back to work!”

I turned to Jojo who stood transfixed in a daze as he watched the men resume felling the trees and logging them away. ‘’Can’t they see Themba?’’ His voice sounded distant and bitter. ‘’Can’t they see?’’

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