Lonely Roads – Previous Episodes: Prologue, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Lonely Roads 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9, Chapter 10, Chapter 11, Chapter 12, Chapter 13, Chapter 14, Chapter 15
Onu was so troubled she couldn’t even get herself to lie down, much more catch some sleep. She had gone a whole day with no sign of her son. She was told the raid was a success. Aboh warriors had marched into their enemy’s camp and defeated them with very little effort. So why wasn’t her son home yet? At first she thought he was still angry with her, but she knew Afam better than that. There was something more to his disappearance.
Onu tried to occupy her mind by cooking even though she had enough food to feed herself and Afam on his return. No matter how many soups she prepared and how many times she rearranged the yam barn and cleaned the house, her mind was still preoccupied with worry. Her eyes kept turning to the door when she was inside, and to the walk path when she was out. She kept imagining seeing her son coming back, bow and machete in his hand. Several times she imagined him calling her name and she ran out to embrace him, but he was nowhere to be found.
Onu’s worries broke her apart when evening came. Her mind was in turmoil. She had never really realised how attached and dependent on her son she was. What hurt her even more was that he left her in anger, anger for what she had done to him, what she had kept from him. She hated herself for keeping the secret. Onu was willing to give anything to take back time, she wanted to make things right. Her relationship with her son had been built on secrets, and like all such relationships the foundation was weak. All it took was a slight quake of the earth to destroy it. In this case Esimai’s appearance was the quake and it destroyed their relationship in more ways than Onu thought it would.
Where did Esimai disappear to? Onu wondered. Had Afam gone to find him? That was possible, likely even. But Onu couldn’t get herself to believe that was the reason why Afam wasn’t in the hut right now. He would have come back before he left. She knew her son well enough to be certain of that. Onu believed that if she as much as could receive news that her son was unharmed, all her worries would be put away. But neither Afam nor news about his wellbeing came home today. The light of day faded to darkness, diminishing Onu’s hopes with every moment.
She sat on her little stool in the hut and wept bitterly. She wondered why her life was the way it was. Memories that she had spent almost her entire lifetime putting behind her began to resurface in her mind and it saddened her to relive those dreadful events that changed her life. She recalled the shrine, the priest, his painted body, his face, his back, the inscriptions in white chalk, the day she was made an osu. She remembered the loud beating of the udu and the frantic dance of the servants around her. Incantations that she couldn’t understand echoed in her ears. She could hear herself cry and she knew no help was coming. She remembered the dry bamboo shrine and its straw thatched roof. She remembered the wooden carved mask, red and white cloth that hung around, skulls, calabashes filled with chalk and red liquid she knew to be blood. When Onu remembered the priest sprinkling goat blood on her with the end of a cow’s tail, she snapped out of the bondage her mind was locking her in.
The past was very difficult to walk away from. For all these years she had tried to forget about it, but how could she? It was the past that made the present and when the present became past, it made the future. The harder she tried to forget, the more clearly she remembered. She realised that remembering to forget was actually remembering. Onu prayed that the gods would do her a favour and look after her son wherever he was. She refused to believe that he might be gone forever. She just couldn’t imagine him dead. The sight of his corpse lying with empty eyes frightened her to a point she could not bear. She decided to give it a few more days at least. Perhaps the town crier would announce that he was dead if that was the case. Onu prayed very hard against this.
The more she thought of Afam, the more she sank into his past. She slowly rewound her memory to pick out flashes of him at different stages of his life. She started with the brave man he was today then she went back to when he was becoming a man. He was always wiser and more mature than his age. He asked very few questions, and he was very observant. He liked to be at peace so he never went looking for trouble. Onu remembered his days as a boy. When she travelled from Kwale back to Aboh with him, he never complained on the way. Not for tiredness, not even for hunger or thirst.
Lastly Onu recalled Afam as a baby. She remembered the day he was born. She tried not to think about that day a lot. She sincerely hoped that she had forgotten about it, but she knew that was not even possible for there was something more to Afam’s birth than he knew. There was a secret buried in that day and Onu wasn’t sharing that secret with anyone in the world, not even on her deathbed. This was her own little dark secret and she shared it with only the oyibo doctor who saw her that day. She thought about the doctor from time to time. The day she delivered she was so irritated by the touch of his white skin between her legs. He saw and touched too much of her. But now there was a feeling of attachment to the man regardless of the fact that she had never seen him again. She often thought of him even though she wasn’t sure what she felt for him. It wasn’t love, she was sure of that. But it wasn’t any form of resentment either. Onu snapped out of the past to get back to the present. No matter how many times she visited the past in her mind, nothing was going to change. She carried on with the hope of seeing Afam till she finally lay on the bamboo bed. She was lying face up with her eyes wide open. She asked sleep to come and steal her but it only seemed to run further away from her.
* * *
After Chibuzo slept Afam was still very much awake. His mind wandered in the past and present, and it tried to see the future. There was so much he was uncertain about and it worried and scared him. He thought about his mother and how worried she would be now. If only he could just send a message to her that he was no longer angry at her and that he was sorry for walking out on her. It would have made all the difference. But nothing could leave this pit. It was a one-way route that swallowed all souls it took in for eternity.
Afam had spent the day in his own mind so he didn’t really have a good idea of the absurd conditions the pit was in. Now that it was night and quiet, his eyes roamed around the room and he wished he could be anywhere but here. Even being in a grave wasn’t a bad idea. There was no pit latrine in this entrapment. The captives dug small holes with their hands and that was where they emptied their bowels. The stench of body sweat, faeces and urine filled the room, making it even stuffier. As Afam’s senses opened up to his surroundings he felt his stomach turn and he thought that he might vomit. The spot he lay on stank so much it made his nostrils hurt and his eyes water. For the sake of his stomach he tried to imagine he wasn’t resting his head on earth with faeces less than a foot below. He also wished no one had urinated on his spot as well. Afam wasn’t sure how much of this hell-hole he could take, but he doubted it could be as much as ten days.
At this point Afam thought he was weak. Perhaps he failed to realise his own strength. This was just the first phase of his journey and his journey was long, very long. Afam knew next to nothing about how the oyibo treated blacks on their gigantic boats. He knew nothing about how big oyibo farms were or what Africans did on the farms.
He thought of one last thing before he told himself to get some sleep. He thought about Adaobi. If only he could hear her voice now it would change so much. She was a good singer. When she sang to him at night when they met it felt like her words floated into his ears and found their way to his heart. With each note she endeared herself closer to his heart and he loved her even more. He wondered if he was ever going to hear her sing again, if he would ever see her face again. The thought of her singing to Dike filled Afam with jealousy that made way for anger and hatred. There was no doubt in Afam’s mind that if he set his eyes on Dike this hatred was going to breed violence. He would unleash a savagery that would end only in bloodshed. Afam hated Dike so much it made him wonder which of the emotions was the stronger: love or hate? He was telling himself that Dike had stolen his wife, but was Adaobi really his to keep? Or was he just claiming her because he was being greedy, selfish, and possessive of what he felt was his? Those were without a doubt the vices of love. It brought about those traits and that was why it gave birth to jealousy when it was being taken away by someone else. Afam forced his eyes closed and told his mind to wander no more. He had no idea what awaited him tomorrow; getting some rest tonight was a good idea.
* * *
Adaobi couldn’t sleep for so many reasons. She was thinking about Afam and what would become of him. She didn’t know he was being held right there in her father’s compound. She was still praying for the gods to spare him pain, agony, and suffering, to save him from death. She tried to close her eyes to see if she could somehow connect to his mind and feel him; that was not possible. She was also thinking about what would become of her. She felt nothing at all for the man she was going to marry. In fact she didn’t even think of Dike as a man. Dike was born into royalty. He never knew hunger or pain. He was not a wrestler, he couldn’t hunt, he never fought for his village in times of war, all his life he depended on the crown his father wore to feed him. She thought of him as a man who never stopped sucking at his mother’s breast. She didn’t feel safe and protected around him. And this was the man she was supposed to share the rest of her life with; the man who would take her to bed and do to her as he pleased. The thought of him touching the loose ends of her cloth in the night disgusted her. The thought of him feeling her skin, her breasts –Adaobi fought these thoughts away. The thought of him inside her was so painful she decided not to even imagine what it would feel like.
She knew there was no escaping the wedding. Her future had been decided and there was nothing she could do to change it. She had thought about every possible way but there always seemed to be a glitch in the plans she came up with. She had even considered poisoning Dike when they were married. If she were caught her life would be made so miserable she’d prefer to live with Dike than be punished for killing him. And even if she wasn’t caught, there were still obstacles in the way. In Aboh when a man dies before his wife the wife is seen as the cause of his death. There was a long and frightening ritual carried out to ensure that the woman was innocent. It was believed that the gods would expose the woman if she had a hand in her husband’s death, no matter how little. The punishment ranged from madness to death, and this took effect within as little as three days. The first act of the ritual would be Adaobi’s ejection from the main hut to a smaller hut known as ‘Uno Ojo’. There she would stay for a moon without taking a bath or cleaning her mouth. She would feed from only one plate, which would be thrown away after the moon had passed. At the end of her stay in the Uno Ojo, the Adas (first born daughters) of the village would shave her hair. Then on the burial day she would be asked to come into the room with her husband’s corpse. She would stand naked before the Adas and she would tell them all about her life with her husband. To prove her innocence, she would have to wash his corpse and drink from the water. The thought of all these things was enough to scare the strongest woman off murdering her husband. Adaobi found it ridiculous that some women still had it in them to murder their husband. She couldn’t even begin to imagine their hate.
The last thing Adaobi thought about was how she was going to hide the truth about her virginity. She had no idea what she was going to do when Dike realise that he wasn’t her first. It scared her to think about the night that would happen. She tried to tell herself that her mother knew a way out even though she wasn’t sure if there was a way at all. She cried silently in her hut and after that she fell into a very disturbed sleep.
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