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, Chapter 16, Chapter 17, Chapter 18, Chapter 19
More screams erupted from time to time as captives who resisted feeding were force-fed. After chewing and swallowing the large lump of yam Afam’s tongue went even dryer than it was before. When the water came around he gulped and swallowed slowly because he knew it was the more effective way. Water had never felt so good; there is a famous Igbo saying: ‘Mnmiri bu ndu’ –‘Water is life.’ Afam said that to himself and tried to catch some sleep.
Chibuzo could no longer stand the silence.
‘Afam, you think we survive?’ he asked. Afam smiled at the question even in his absolute agony. There was nothing remotely funny about it. But in times like these it was helpful to draw some humour out of every situation; at least it kept you sane enough to be yourself. How on earth was he supposed to know if they were going to survive? He was in every way just like Chibuzo on this boat. They were both strangers to this journey. Perhaps Chibuzo wasn’t asking to receive a definite answer. He wanted to hear something like ‘If the gods willed it, then we shall survive.’
Afam had forsaken the gods and did not plan on going back to them.
‘You know, if you asked me a question like this a few days ago I would have told you that if the gods willed it, we shall survive. But I am afraid I do not believe in the existence of the gods anymore.’ Afam spoke slowly, not just because he was weak, he wanted Chibuzo to hear every word and see that he meant it too. Chibuzo was confused.
‘Sorry, don’t understand.’ Chibuzo said. Afam repeated himself to assure Chibuzo he wasn’t unsure of what he had said in the first place.
Chibuzo wanted to encourage Afam not to despair. He wanted to tell Afam to have faith and stay strong but he had no grounds to ask that of him. Afam explained to him that gods that willed this on the people were not fatherly and hence should not be treated as such. For a man like Chibuzo, who had committed enough sins for three lifetimes, that was not true. Chibuzo, who was now trying to believe in the gods, thought about the hundreds of captives aboard. Had they all committed as many sins as he had? Probably not, he guessed. So why did the gods allow this horrible fate to befall them too? He felt very young in his faith so he decided not to ask questions. The dibia always spoke against questioning the gods: ‘The gods always have their reasons.’ That was the teaching of the dibia. Chibuzo began to feel doubts creeping into his faith and it made him wonder if speaking to Afam was a good idea. He wondered if faith was not just a form of insanity that he was embracing. He decided not to speak to Afam anymore, at least for the time being.
As the night deepened the sound of silence echoed louder in the deck with the slaves falling asleep. Afam had come to learn that there was another deck beneath the one he was held in. He wondered if they held just the women and children there – probably not. The women and children were not enough to fill that space, if it was anything as large as the one he was held in. Afam didn’t know how long this nightmare was going to continue but he had a feeling it was only going to get worse. He tried to imagine how long he could endure this before truly losing the will to live. If this continued for a whole moon, there was no doubt in his mind that many men would not make it to wherever they were being taken. Adaobi had told him about the sugarcane farms called ‘plantations’. The word sounded so strange to Afam the first time he heard it. He remembered the difficulty he encountered just trying to pronounce it.
Afam was about to give into sleep when he remembered the wine tapper who had told him all about his father. He thought about Esimai. He imagined what meeting him would feel like, then rightly advised himself not to think of such things. If there was something he did not need now it was sentiments about this man that he never knew, this man who was supposed to be his father. As far as Afam was concerned, he was fatherless and nothing the palm-wine tapper said was going to change that. He grew up not knowing Esimai as his father and he was going to keep it that way. He closed his eyes and tried to free his mind enough to fall into the merciful hands of sleep.
* * *
Onu was slowly losing her mind over her son’s disappearance. She had never felt so lonely in her life. Every time she heard a sound that might be a person she would run out of the hut and look down the walk path. She desperately wanted to see Afam but he was never there. She refused to believe he was dead. Just the fear that he might be gone shook her up so much. She wondered if it had anything to do with his romance with Adaobi. The news about her and the prince had spread through the village like dragonflies on a rainy day. Onu managed to overhear some of what was being said from two young girls gossiping about Adaobi. They were saying something about her life being perfect from the moment she was born, and something about how she had never suffered and was very lazy. It was clear from their tone that they were just jealous of her condition. All they could do was try to bring her down with their little words that would probably never reach her.
Onu knew the kind of man Onwa was. She was around to witness his rise to riches. She was around to see him take chieftaincy and become one of the most powerful and influential men in Aboh. She knew his wealth was built on a lot of enemies, many dead now. Onwa was the type of man that you didn’t want to steal from or have as an enemy. He was a man to be avoided at all costs. It didn’t matter whose fault it was, whether Onwa stepped on you, or you stepped on him, you were in danger. Onu knew this but she couldn’t stop Afam. A feeling of guilt overwhelmed her as she began to regret not making any attempt to warn her son. There was so much she should have told him. What she would give for a second chance to make things right.
Onu cried alone in her hut, wishing that the gods would somehow reveal the truth about her son to her. At this moment she wondered if she would actually want to know the truth if it meant discovering that Afam was dead. As much as her heart ached with grief, she still held onto the faith that she would see her son again. In fact, she felt it was that beacon of hope that kept her alive. She could not imagine life without it. The absolute pointlessness of her life without her son was evident more clearly than ever. What hurt Onu the most about the situation was the fact that she knew there was nothing she could do to change it. She just had to endure the pain and live on the hope that it would go away one day. Even the little hope of seeing her son again was questioned in her mind, breeding doubts that poisoned her faith and suppressed her hopes.
She finally fell into a sleep full of a mixture of dreams, nightmares, and imaginative illusions. It was hard to separate what was truly a dream from what was simply wishful thinking in her imagination. She woke frequently in between this disturbed sleep to stare at the ceiling. Sometimes she imagined she heard her son coming home and she took a look out of the window. It was a terrible night. Onu found herself wishing she would sleep forever because she feared to face another day. She was so lost in her mind that she began to question everything. Would the sun rise tomorrow or would it notice that her son was missing, and mourn with her? Would cocks crow as usual and would the morning whistling of the birds that perched on her roof still fill her with a reason to live?
The bitter and ugly truth was that whether Afam was dead or alive, nothing was going to change. The world would continue to move like he never even existed. Just like the sun didn’t go away the day he was born, it would not be going away the day he died. The birds might notice his absence but they had a home on the hut and they weren’t going to move in mourning for Afam. Life was going to go on and the world would not care if Onu had lost her only son. The village didn’t even see Afam as her flesh and blood to start with. They still thought he was adopted. There were rumours of course, but no one ever embraced them wholeheartedly.
Onu couldn’t get any more sleep by the early hours of dawn. She lay on her bamboo bed wide awake, a thousand miles from sleep, a million miles in thoughts and prayers. ‘Afam, where are you? Come home to your mother, she needs you.’
* * *
Adaobi knew the day was coming and it was coming very fast. She feared it like she feared death itself. Her father wanted her to be married as soon as possible and knowing the kind of man he was, that meant her wedding day could be counted with only the fingers – maybe toes too, if there were to be any delays. Messages had already been sent out to faraway lands inviting kings and kinsmen.
Dike had come to the house the other day with his father and he had eyed her in a way that told her he wanted to be inside her. Adaobi was beautiful and she knew it. Having the eyes of predatory young men on her was something she was very used to. But in Dike’s case there was a lot more to it. Every other time she knew the young men only had her in bed when they dreamed of it. With Dike it was different. She would become his wife and what he pleased was what he would do to and with her. There was no place for a woman in this world. She was more or less a servant to her husband. His word was law, his wish her command. That was how things were in Aboh and it wasn’t changing anytime soon.
It took every nerve in Adaobi’s body to keep herself from falling apart when the Obi and his son inspected her. She was made to wear a tightly tied white wrapper cloth over her breasts. Her slim, flat stomach was exposed with waist beads drawing even more attending to it. Around her waist she wore a matching white wrapper cloth that covered her thighs and stopped just above her knees. She would not be allowed by the code of decency to wear that on a normal day, only on the occasion when maidens are supposed to showcase their talent. If there was ever such an occasion, it was the Inyo uno. The father had to prepare his daughter as best he could so that she looked beyond appetizing for the young man. That way the dowry could be increased and in lust for what the young man was seeing, he would agree to pay.
Adaobi came in and greeted like a well-trained girl. She walked up to the Obi first because he was the first man to be honoured in every occasion, regardless of his age compared to the other men.
‘Obi’m ekenm gi oh!’ She bent down low as a sign of respect and she didn’t stand until he touched her back and returned her greeting. ‘Omalicha nwa azulazu, I ga di.’ ‘Beautiful and respectful child, you shall live.’ At the mention of that, Onwa allowed himself a light smile; inside he was filled with more joy and pride than could fit in the room.
Adaobi proceeded to greet Dike’s mother, Obiagaeli. She was a very quiet woman who lived happily in the shadow of her husband. There were other wives, of course, but she was the first and the mother of Dike so she was seen as the queen in Aboh. Obiagaeli returned the greeting and didn’t say much more than that the entire evening. If Onwa did not know her better, he would have believed she was either dumb or had something against his household. But he knew her well enough to know that she was a woman of very few words.
Adaobi greeted her parents then finally she acknowledged Dike’s presence with a bow but no words. It was then that she saw his eyes preying on her. The fool did not make his lust hidden. He was openly staring at her breasts and hips, even a child would have hidden his thoughts better. It took almost two breaths for Dike to snap out of his trance and back into the room. He tried hard to retain some of his pride and dignity but it was too late. Adaobi had seen him for what he really was, a weakling. A man who could not control the thoughts of his amu on a night like this was very foolish. Adaobi had been taught by her father that a man’s strength is of his wisdom and not his machete. Dike could not have been more unwise.
Everyone in the room noticed Dike’s stumble but pretended not to, for it was wrong to pour salt on the hurt pride of a man before women. The Obi made a mental note to punish his son for this shame when they were back in their palace. The room was filled with masked smiles that didn’t come close to the eyes. Everyone could tell that no one was really happy in the true sense of the emotion, but no one was willing to speak up. This was the kind of life that came with being royalty. People put up an act for you in the name of respect. Adaobi didn’t see it as respect. To her the silence was masking the truth, hiding it. The silence was a lie. Adaobi wondered if this was the life that her father was giving her into. Was she going to spend the rest of her life being deceived like this?
The kola nut was broken after a long speech by Onwa, ending with a wish that the relationship between the two families grew and prospered. After the breaking of the kola nut palm wine filled every horn and they drank till they were merry. At the end of the evening Adaobi was sure that there was no going back from this. Dike was going to be her husband and she was going to be his wife. Her akalaka (destiny) was with Dike. It was painful to know, but it was the truth and the sooner she learned to accept it, the better life would be for her.
The guests left and after a few words from Onwa, Adaobi made her way to her hut with a heart full of feelings she didn’t have the words to explain. She prayed that the ground she walked on would just swallow her so that she ceased to exist. She realised that this was the beginning of a miserable life and she was not looking forward to it.
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