When Afam regained consciousness he was asking the gods why they had spared him after he cursed them. His entire body burned with pain as he lay on his back on the clay earth with his eyes closed. He tried to move his arms but the pain that shot through his biceps forced to him to stay rigid. He could feel lumps all over his body; his head, ribs, throat, thighs, and chest all ached. With his eyes still closed Afam tried to replay the events that led to his capture. It came back to him now as one big blur, as if it never really happened. He could just about remember a man stomping on his chest and clubs raining down on his body.
With some effort he managed to open his eyes. It was now daytime, or was it not? He wasn’t sure. It was dark where he awoke. He wondered if he had slept through the day. No, he couldn’t have. Afam wanted to believe he had not lost track of time. His ears were filled with a buzzing sound, probably from the slaps that covered them earlier. He struggled to pick up any sound that might tell him what time of day it was – a cockcrow maybe. First Afam thought he was imagining the mumbling that sounded in his ears. The voices grew louder and he soon even began to feel the presence of other people in the room. He remained almost motionless where he lay, fearing that the voices might belong to an enemy tribe, as he couldn’t understand the words they spoke. With time his hearing returned and then he realised that the voices didn’t speak one but many tongues. Wherever he was being held, many men of other tribes were also being held there. Afam found that he could recognise some of the other languages even though he couldn’t speak them. He had learnt the sound of different tongues from his days roaming in search of company that he never found.
When he felt he had saved up enough strength to bear the pain of raising his body and staying on his feet, he decided to stand. As Afam moved, he felt like his muscles were on fire, the lumps and twitches reminded him of how much he was beaten earlier. From his arms the pain spread to the rest of his body as he coordinated his movements. He fought hard with his eyes shut tight and finally he managed to stand on his feet but with support from the wall. Afam cursed whoever had cost him this pain, vowing to kill them should he ever lay his eyes on them. But then his captors could be trapped in this place with him and he wouldn’t recognise them.
All eyes were on Afam and he could feel them all over his body. He wondered if everyone here had been beaten like him before capture. The sound of a woman and a little boy told him the answer. He couldn’t imagine a woman going through the agony he went through. As for a child, it was simply impossible. With each breath Afam’s senses were coming back to clarity, and his mind became sharper.
After a series of thoughts Afam came to the realization that this was a place where men for sale were being held. Adaobi had said the captives from wars were sold to oyibo, so were kidnapped men, women, and children from other tribes. Afam could tell some of these men were prisoners of war just by looking at them. Not in his wildest dream would he have believed that he could be kidnapped. But here he was, helpless and hopeless, almost praying for his own death.
He felt his stomach flip and he cursed himself for feeling hunger in a place like this. He wondered if they were even going to be fed. There were so many uncertain things about this situation and it frightened Afam to the pit of his stomach. How long were they going to be held in this dark room? And when they were finally let out – if ever – where would they be taken? What would be done to them there? No matter how hard he tried, he would find nothing but more fear in these questions; better not to think of them. Afam told himself that he was a man to keep the tears away from his eyes, but in his heart he cried like a helpless child. He tried in vain to fight thoughts of Adaobi and his mother. Adaobi would probably go on to marry Dike and would become the Obi’s wife one day. But as for Onu, Afam had no idea what was going to become of her. If he could see only her one last time to right his wrongs with her, to tell her that he was sorry. Afam had never felt so emotionally shattered. It was like his life had lost its colour and become absolutely pointless. There wasn’t anything to live for, nothing even worth dying for. He felt more or less like a palm tree in a lonely forest: no one to tap the wine, no one to cut it down. He was used to solitude and isolation but this was something else. It was almost unbearable. The thought that things would only get worse as time unfolded crossed Afam’s mind. He decided that he would take his life when he couldn’t bear it anymore.
In an attempt to pull his mind away from the many things that troubled him, Afam decided to study the hold closer. The floor was clay and the roof was thatched with palm fronds and bamboo sticks. It was so high that even a man standing on the head of another man could not reach the top. They probably didn’t want the captives escaping. After a close study of the place he succeeded in finding a few holes on the roof that told him it was daytime. He remembered his encounter with the oyibo on his way back to the village. They were going to be trapped in this place for another night at least. He guessed the oyibo would move before the first cock-crow.
More than anything now Afam wanted some water to quench his thirst and soothe his aching throat. He tried to salivate as much he could but it did not help. He imagined having to stay like this until night came and he wished one of these captives would mercifully kill him.
As time passed Afam felt more desperate to speak to someone because keeping all his thoughts in his head was driving him insane. He scanned the crowd for anyone who could be of Aboh but his search was in vain. Some of these men even looked like they were Yoruba. He could tell from the tribal marks on their faces. Afam wondered what they were doing here all the way from the south. He decided he had enough on his plate and stopped worrying about the Yoruba captives.
Just when he was about to quit his search for company and condemn himself to solitude, things changed. A man Afam guessed to be roughly his age walked up to him with a look of caution in his eyes. Afam wondered what it was about him that worried the man. The young man studied Afam closely then with more effort than was needed, he spoke.
‘E… e…bu…bu… buonye Aboh?’
The young man spoke with great difficulty, stammering and then pronouncing some words too quickly. Afam understood the man was asking if he was from Aboh. He wondered how the stranger knew. If his face were anything like its shape before the beating then maybe some of his features would give him away. Afam hadn’t seen what he looked like in a mirror, but he could feel his face and it wasn’t in good shape. He painfully swallowed and admitted to being from Aboh with a weak nod.
It was after Afam admitted the truth that he realised what he might have put himself into. Most of these people were enemies of his land. They had every reason to beat him over the half inch that remained of his life. He tried to tell himself death was the easier option here, but deep inside he still feared dying. He was in enough pain already; a group of angry warriors pounding him to death was the last thing he needed.
The young man looked at Afam with concerned eyes. He stretched out his hand to offer Afam some chicken to eat. No one had to tell Afam the dungeon was supplied with rejected food. In Aboh an animal had to bleed to death to be edible. Animals that grew sick and died were regarded as cursed animals. Afam questioned the source of this food, but when his stomach crunched at the sight of it, he grabbed it with little thought. He finished the meat in record time, eating greedily because he did not know when more was coming.
The effort it took the young man to articulate his words and string them together into a sentence told Afam he suffered from some type of speech impediment. At that moment it didn’t matter if the man knew only ten words in Igbo. His gesture of kindness endeared him to Afam’s heart and the sound of his not-so-fluent Igbo made Afam feel a bit more at home in the midst of all these men who spoke strange tongues. Afam wondered where they were being held. If only the murmuring would die down he could try listening to the silence to hear what was going on outside. He considered asking his fellow inmates to be quiet but he thought better of it. He had just arrived; he figured he had no reasonable place in the hierarchy. If he was thrown in with his full strength he could attempt to bully his way through, but not in this state. He wondered for how long most of these men had been held for. There was something in the way some moved that told him they weren’t as green as he was.
After he licked the chicken bone clean he thanked the young man whom he now considered a friend. Afam studied his new-found friend and noticed that look of experience in him. He wasn’t new around here.
‘Aha’m bu Afam Udemba.’ Afam introduced himself, pointing his index finger at his chest and looking at his friend in the eyes for signs of acknowledgement. Afam didn’t know why but he felt the need to gesture as he spoke to his new friend. He also spoke a lot slower when talking to him. The friend nodded his understanding and introduced himself.
‘Chibuzo Okoli,’ the friend replied. Chibuzo was used to people talking slowly and making gestures when they spoke to him. He didn’t know exactly why but they seemed to assume his hearing was just as impaired as his speech.
There were a hundred and ten questions Afam wanted to ask Chibuzo, but he knew he had to take it slowly. Not only could he not ask more than one question at a time, he had to ask each question with patience because it took Chibuzo a while to get his words together. And even when Chibuzo replied he would require some patience to comprehend, as his sentences were often incomplete and some of his words were broken, making understanding him even more painstaking.
The first question Afam wanted to ask was why Chibuzo was almost startled at the mention of his name. He figured his reputation must have surpassed him so he let it pass. Instead he asked him if he knew where they were. Afam was thinking about escaping and the first step was to have an idea of his environment. It wasn’t going to do him any good climbing out of this entrapment to find himself surrounded by guards, even worse in the middle of a forest.
Afam tried to cut out every possible word and employ every possible gesture. Afam opened his arms and looked around with a lost face to sell his question. Chibuzo caught on fast and replied.
‘Compound, very big.’ He emphasised the size of the area with gestures.
‘Huts, plenty,’ more gestures. Then he said the word that Afam wanted but yet dreaded to hear, ‘Aboh’. Chibuzo pointed with both index fingers to his feet to tell Afam that they were standing on Aboh soil. He thought Afam would be pleased to know this, but from the look on Afam’s face he could tell this was bad news.
Afam knew there were only two places with very large compounds and many huts. It was either the Obi’s palace, or it was Onwa’s territory. He didn’t have to think to figure out which one of the two he was in. Without a shadow of doubt he was trapped in Onwa’s compound. He wondered if Adaobi knew he was here. And if she did, how did it make her feel? He imagined her coming to free him. These thoughts were stupid and hopeless. Afam commanded them out of his mind in order to face the deadly music playing before him. If he was going to survive what he was about to go through, he had to be realistic with himself. There was very little space for hope and faith, no space at all for dreams or wishes.
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