Pomegranate Tree

In the brick-paved area between the Escher-like Senate House and WISER, there is a pomegranate tree, with a crop of ruby-red pomegranates that grow on the top-most branches, split open to the sun and the birds.

I noticed it only a little while ago while walking past, and I was as surprised as if I had suddenly come across the door that leads to Narnia, or across a Phoneix, blinking down at me with all its splendour made real and surreally ordinary.

Pomegranates are mythical fruit: their red jewelled seeds arranged around the labyrinthine insides of the hard, gourd-like shell like opulent treasures. Their juices are both sticky and sweet, and yet tantalisingly thinly wound around each seed, so to eat pomegranate seeds is almost an exercise in the sublime.

Persephone, or rather, the telling of her story, is what made this tree transport my memories here.

I am sitting on the thick carpet in our high lounge fringed by trees in the lush Durban that only really exists in my air-brushed memories, and my glamorous grandmother, her hair wound around her head with expertly placed hair combs, is telling me the story of the snatched child Persephone, taken down into the underworld. Her eyes widen dramatically, and her high, beautiful cheekbones lend an otherworldly seriousness to her description of the withering earth while Demeter, earth mother, mourns the loss of her child.

It will be years before I read the real story, but in this for-children, yet still thrilling tale of my grandmother, it is a girl who is taken to the underworld by Hades.

Mercury begs her to help the earth recover, as the world is desperate for new life and growth, but she, wild with grief, refuses.

It is up to Zeus to make the decision about whether Persephone can return home, but in the depths of the underworld, Persephone is hungry, and longs for the food from above the earth. Hades sends his minions all over the earth to find food for her, and for many days they find nothing.

Finally, they return with one all-but-withered pomegranate.

Zeus makes his decision: as long as Persephone has eaten nothing from the underworld during her stay, she will be free to return to her mother.

Mercury flies down to the underworld, to discover that the hungry child has eaten – my grandmother says these last words with small, significant pauses between them, each word enunciated – six seeds of the pomegranate.

Mercury devises a compromise. Persephone must spend six months in the underworld every year, and six months above it. Her mother will mourn for the time her child is away, and Autumn and winter will make life difficult for human beings. She will rejoice when Persephone returns: and spring and summer will make the earth fertile once more.

It is the pomegranate that features in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting of Persephone, the small, scarlet seeds like a small wound in the canvas, dwarfed by the rich fabric and the tactile-looking rendering of her hair. This painting, in turn, was used for the cover for a re-telling of the story of Mary Magdalene that I read in the haven that was (and perhaps, still is) the Durban Girls’ College library. In it, Mary Magdalene was portrayed as a spurned woman because she suffered from epilepsy, and was thought to be possessed. The book ends with her finding Jesus, and looking forward into a new life, golden with promise at the edges.

It was years before I held a real pomegranate, in an old-fashioned fruiterers near a local library in Pretoria. I bought a pack of them, and they were as much of an adventure as the finding of the library itself, and as the Ursula Le Guin books I took out that day, the comforting smell of their old pages seeming to fill my nose again as I write this.

I remember taking the fruit home, thrilled, and then being put out at how difficult they were to cut and eat, and how many pomegranate seeds were stored inside one shell. I couldn’t finish them all. Some of them went to waste, the bright red juices becoming brown and the seeds congealing.

I walk past the pomegranate tree every day as I go home. The season for fruit has passed, but the sliver of crescent moon was out tonight when I walked across campus, bestowing its silvery beams like a benediction on all my confused musings, one folded inside the other, not unlike the labyrinthine structure of a pomegranate.