Towards the back of the coffee walk is a big ackee tree. Its trunk is very wide and the branches spread high above the banana trees and coffee trees. It just stands in the coffee walk like a great white elephant, failing to bear any fruit year after year. Mama says that as long as she can remember it has been there, but not an ackee will it surrender.
My brother often uses this tree to trap birds. Alton climbs the tree and makes what he calls a choky. He uses cord to make a noose which he ties to a high limb of the tree. He then puts a very ripe tangerine in front of the noose. The trick is that the bird, in order to peck the tangerine, has to push its head through the noose. When the bird’s head is in the noose, Alton draws a cord that is suspended to the ground. If he is swift enough, the victim is caught when the noose tightens. This requires a lot of time and patience, and sometimes he is under that tree for hours without catching one single bird.
Sometimes he makes a calaban, which he places under the tree. This is another trap to catch the birds. He uses sticks, which are neatly arranged and tied to make a little house. One can see between the spaces what is inside the house. An orange is placed under the calaban. A slender stick is then used to scotch the calaban, so that the bird can go in to eat the orange. As soon as the bird bounces on the calaban, the stick falls and it is trapped.
I often wonder why he bothers. Once in a blue moon he manages to catch a little teeny bird. He cleans it up and roasts it and it tastes bitter like gall. Anyway when Papa decides to chop down the tree, Alton begs him not to, because he wants to continue his bird catching in the ackee tree. Papa grants him his wish.
“Just for one more year,” Papa says. “If that tree don’t bear this year, a chopping it down. It preventing the coffee trees from getting sunlight and bearing more coffee beans.”
Well today when I look up into the ackee tree I see blossoms. I am excited.
“Mama the ackee tree blossoming!” I tell Mama.
“Let’s hope it bear this time,” Mama says. “Its life depend on it”
Then wonder of wonders, the ackee tree bears ackees!
“What no happen in a year happen in a day!” Mama says, and I can see that she is glad.
We watch the fruits progress from tiny green pods to brilliant red fruits. Then we wait for them to open and display their black eyes. No such luck.
“Mama why the ackees won’t open so we can eat ackee and saltfish?” I ask.
“Give them time,” Mama chides. “Yu can’t rush God’s handy work.”
But a lot of time has passed. Every day I look up at the big bunches of brilliant red, but there are no black eyes looking back at me.
Today Miss Emma visits us. She is Uncle Tiger’s wife, but we still call her Miss Emma instead of Aunt Emma. She is a plump, pleasant woman, whose body often shakes with laughter. I proudly show her the ackee tree laden with fruits.
“The sad thing is that they won’t open,” I tell her.
“They look fit and big enough to burst,” says Miss Emma. “Is full time they pop now. If yu want them to open, yu don’t know that yu must go under the tree and laugh?”
“Go under the tree an laugh!” I exclaim.
Instead of answering, Miss Emma drags all of us under the tree, even Papa. We all look up into the tree and laugh. I feel so silly. I don’t believe a word that she says, but I find myself laughing at how silly we all look, laughing up into the ackee tree. I glance at Miss Emma, whose body is shaking vigorously as she throws back her head and laughs the loudest. Now we are laughing till tears are streaming down some of our faces.
“Come from under the tree!” Papa brings us back to our senses. This is all foolishness! Miss Emma where yu get this nonsense from?”
“Doubtful Thomas!”she jeers as we go back into the yard.
Next day I am the first to see the shiny black eyes peeping out of the red pods. I am so elated!
“Mama the ackees opening!” I shout.
Mama comes running out and counts six opened ackees. We laugh under the tree again. By noon, some more ackees burst wide open. We laugh again and by evening all we can see are brilliant black eyes peeping from the red ackee pods in the tree.
Alton picks the ackees and Mama cooks ackee and saltfish and dumplings and yellow yam and St. Vincent yam for dinner.
What a feast we have man!
Miss Emma can’t stop talking about it. She is so surprised that we did not know that we should laugh under the tree to make the ackees pop! Papa says she is talking pure nonsense and Alton says it is just coincidence.
But they can always talk. I love ackee and salt fish so till!
And yu si now that I know what I know?
Every day till ackee season done, I going under that ackee tree to laugh!
Patricia Whittle is Jamaican. She has published two books, namely Mi Waan Fi Publish A Book: An Anthology of Jamaican Dialect Poems and Johnny, Mass Tom and the Fatal Error: Three Short Plays for the Jamaican Audience. She is a librarian and a teacher of English Literature.