Gather around children. Listen keenly to this tale.
In the heart of the forest stands a powerful tree.
So big and strong it conquered the mighty three.
The axe couldn’t cut it.
The man couldn’t hack it.
The wind couldn’t fell it.

It is said,
Seven rounds around the tree,
And what lies within shall be set free.
Seek and you might see,
A transformation most magical indeed.

From He to She,
From She to He.
Be careful then,
Of the Mugumo tree.


The village rests sound asleep. The silence is so loud it’s almost deafening. Even the creatures of the night are not to be heard, as though they too understand the ominous nature this particular night holds. The darkness envelopes this little enclosure, wrapping itself ever so tightly around its entirety. Embracing it, as a mother with her new born child. Swaddled and swathed in blankets the shade of night, cradling it into deep slumber.

In the midst of the shadows, a figure. A boy. Eyes wide and bright as the moon above. The only semblance of light at his aide. He does not risk a lantern lest someone is watching. He knows this is a ridiculous thought as no one, save for the rare night runner, would dare be awake at this hour. But he does not wish to test this theory. Not tonight. Tonight, his plans are too precarious to put to the test.

Quickly, feet dashing silently yet steadily across the damp forest ground, he makes his way towards its very heart. His threadbare shirt barely clinging on to his bony shoulders. His shorts, frayed but not tattered, offer no relief from the biting cold. These garments make haste to be one with the breeze, letting it in and offering it shelter so that the boy can feel the cold straight through his bones. Feels as it settles. Feels as it threatens to cause his teeth to chatter and rattle. A noise he is sure would wake up the spirits if it weren’t in competition with his heart.

His heart that beats to the rhythms of the warrior drums during raid season. His heart that is the cause of this midnight escapade. This heart that was born a size larger than the rest. That knows not, how to say no to love. No to the warmth of a stranger, a semblance as it may be. This heart that longs for that which it cannot have; which it should not have. That which it may not love.

It is this heart that has the boy running. The wind silently questioning him. Taunting him. He can hear the whispers in the ruffling of the trees’ leaves;
“Why are you here?” they ask.
“What do you seek?” they prod.
“Who do you wish to be?” they offer.

Questions he hopes the heart of the forest will answer. For who better understands matters of the heart than another heart. A kindred spirit. If anyone – anything – would understand, it would be the Mugumo. It would have the answer to the boy’s prayers. And answered prayers are what he seeks. So, he runs.

Not a care spared for the cuts that the branches offer, as if to hold him back. Nor one for the wet cold the earth engraves into the soles of his feet as if to slow him down. To grind him to a halt. No, he refuses to pay mind to the wind, it’s whispers becoming louder the faster he goes. Whispers telling him all will be for naught. He does not care. For tonight is the night. He is willing to offer his very being to whatever deity guards the Mugumo and he is determined to get there. So he forges on. On and on and on. Until…

In the heart of the forest stands a powerful tree.

There it stands. Grand and tall. Old but not worn. Mighty and strong. The stories did it no justice. He could feel its powers oozing down its mighty trunk. Seeping through its roots. Trickling down its leaves and branches. So much so, he could have sworn that if he closed his eyes and reached out, he could almost touch it.

There goes his heart now. Pounding. The sound is almost shattering, piercing through the eerie night. “Do it. DO IT!” it shouts. It begs. It pleads. “Set us free.” He takes a deep breath and counts.




Round and round he goes. Head throbbing, feet crushing twigs, broken branches and sticks.




There goes his heart. Heavy, then light, then heavy again. What must it feel like to know you’re a step away from liberation. Absolute transformation. Is this what his mother meant by heaven?



Silence. Deep, engulfing, suffocating silence. So loud it’s almost deafening. He’d shut his eyes for the last round. Afraid he’d see the transformation begin to take place and falter. Falter like he had that first time he saw Karanja. Falter like his words as he tried to form an excuse of a sentence. Falter like his heart when they shook hands and said hello.

“What was this feeling?” He’d thought. Yet another way his heart, a size larger than everyone else’s, knew not how to say no to love. Forever ready to take in a stranger’s warmth, a semblance as it may be. This heart that longed for that which it could not have; which it should not have. That which it may not love. And yet, it did.

It loved how his eyes, a deep copper, turned golden like the ash tree’s honey in the sun. Loved how his laughter began as a rumble, deep within his centre and bubbled out of him like the brook by the side of his home. Loved that when he smiled, his teeth shone with such a brilliance, the boy finally understood what would make miners go a thousand miles below ground for a single diamond. Karanja had a mine-full and the boy wanted them to always shine in his direction.
His heart loved the pattern that the coils on Karanja’s head made. So lush and effortless, there was nothing more the boy longed for than to run his fingers through them. Over and over again. This cursed heart. It loved and loved and loved.

Seven rounds around the tree,
And what lies within shall be set free.

The thing about love is, it cannot stay hidden. Much like anything—truth, fear, sadness, anger—it refuses to be caged in or bottled up and tucked away. It demands to be set free, lest it bursts and tumbles out uncontrollably. Like it did that day by the river.

When Karanja took his shirt off, laughing, those honey brown eyes lighting up, sparkling so much so that they put stars to shame. When he dived, ever so gracefully, his form perfectly streamlined, into the beckoning waters that promised relief from the scorching sun. When he beckoned for him to join, in that boyish manner of his. This manner that could convince him to sell his very soul if it meant eternity in that moment.

That moment in which time itself felt as though it stood still. The moment when his breath hitched at the sight of Karanja’s body. His skin, pulled taut across his perfect frame, like fresh leather on a new drum. So bronze, it was the envy of every smith. Unburdened by any blemish, the boy was convinced that if he touched it, it would feel like the melted shea butter that rested on his mother’s table—smooth and soft. And his scent. So intoxicating, it made him heady just from the thought of it.

Maybe it was the moment. Maybe it was the sun, its rays so strong they must have tampered with his thinking. Maybe it was the way Karanja looked at him when they were face to face, simply heads bobbing above the water. His gaze so intent the boy was sure he could see straight through his very soul. Or maybe it was his smile. That devastatingly beautiful smile.

Whatever it was, it was enough. Before he knew it, there went his heart. Racing as it did now. There went his love, bursting out and spilling over. And there went his lips, in for a kiss.


His eyes are open now. He dares to look, first at his legs. Still scrawny. Still knocked together at the knees. Then his hands. Still bony, still scratched and scraped, the forest having left its mark as though to say, remember me, for I shall surely remember you. Then his torso–his ribs still peeking through.

His gaze lifts slowly to his chest. Flat as it has ever been. Rising, heaving from the rapid intake of deep breath after deep breath. He runs his fingers through his tightly coiled hair, not even getting halfway through. Still the same. He was still the same.

The rounds hadn’t worked. The old wives tale remained just that. A tale. A make believe.What was inside remained on the inside. He was not a girl. He was still just a boy. A boy with a faulty heart. One that had always been a size too large. One that longed for that which it could not have. That which it should not have. That which it may not love.













Photo by Saboor Rana on Unsplash