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, chapter 20
A few days had passed, each one similar to the other. The darkness was only broken when the doors were opened for the slaves to be fed. This happened two times a day. The sanitation depreciated as more urine and defecation filled the air with a choking stench. The discomfort in the deck caused Afam to wake too many times in his sleep. His nose was getting used to the stench so he perceived it a bit more mildly, but his body wasn’t getting used to the aching. With every second that passed the discomfort increased in intensity. Afam prayed that the oyibo man could just allow him to move his body for a minute. When he realised he was muttering a prayer he cursed himself and cursed the gods. There was no such thing as spirits, gods or omens, Afam was denouncing all of that and accepting a world of flesh, blood, bone and steel. The only thing he contemplated was the existence of the soul. He tried to believe that there was more to him than what he could see. It was the fear of hurting or killing this soul that kept him away from suicide. He knew he could not fully denounce the existence of a spiritual realm until he disbelieved the existence of his soul. He also knew that it was his belief in the soul that kept him away from destroying his body. Afam had never felt tried like this in his life. He couldn’t explain what exactly his feelings were but he knew they fought with each other in his mind. He was trying very hard to run away from spirituality but he was held back by its cornerstone.
Spooner watched his compass and studied the winds; so far so good, everything was in line. He estimated just over forty days for the voyage and he had passed the first three successfully. Spooner was trained to overestimate so knew he was actually closer than he assumed. He barked orders and his crewmen hurried to different posts to see to the running of the ship.
Chibuzo said a morning prayer before he spoke to Afam. He asked the gods in their mercy to give him and Afam, along with everyone else in the deck, the grace to survive the voyage.
‘I ask the gods take us through.’ Chibuzo said. The chains restricted the use of gestures and this made understanding Chibuzo a nightmare. He had to speak slowly and he had to repeat himself to find more words to complete his sentences. Afam frowned but didn’t reply. He didn’t want to argue about the existence of gods, he didn’t possess the strength.
‘Why you not believe in gods? Forefather worship them.’ Chibuzo said. Afam allowed a moment of silence pass. In this moment he carefully thought about all the reasons he had to disbelieve in gods; they were very many.
‘Why is it that you can’t speak fluently?’ Afam asked. Afam asked the question with a tone that told Chibuzo that Afam could tell there was a story behind his inability to speak well.
The truth of it was that Chibuzo had been a loner for the best part of his childhood. He spoke rarely and was almost never spoken to. He spent long hours in the bushes wondering where his mother had disappeared to, why was it that everyone had a mama and he didn’t. His father, a lazy coward who spent his life borrowing money, drinking palm wine, and snuffing tobacco, couldn’t care less about how his son was growing up. Chibuzo left the house as soon as death claimed the man. Before Chibuzo’s father died, he told him that his mother was in a better place. He told him that there was a spiritual realm where you could feel no pain, anger or sorrow. He said their ancestors were in that realm, watching over them too. The picture Chibuzo was painted was one full of joy, peace and serenity – it was a picture of everything he wanted and believed would have easily been his if the gods had not taken his mother away. If the gods were heartless enough to rob a little boy like him of all these good things, then what kind of gods were they?
One day Chibuzo walked outside where his father was taking his snuff. He asked his father if there was a way to go to this realm so that he could see his mother. His father told him that it was only after death that he would be able to do that. Chibuzo then asked him if he could kill himself and his father told him that a person who killed their own soul would be sent to the realm of evil spirits, where for the rest of time he would feel nothing but pain, suffering, agony, fear; he would feel everything bad. Chibuzo was going to walk away quite content with the answers he had received, then one more question surfaced in his mind. It was the answer to this question that changed everything the young boy ever believed in. It was the answer to this question that would shape his life, write his destiny. It was this answer that put him on the path that led him to this ship.
‘Papa, you know anyone been to realms come back tell you?’ Chibuzo’s speech wasn’t the only thing time in isolation had taken from him, it kept him away from the brainwashing process that pushed everyone in Aboh into a belief in spirituality and the gods. Now that he was learning about it, he was too old not to have doubts and questions.
Chibuzo’s father could not sense his son’s doubt in the existence of this place he spoke of, or he would have chosen his words a lot more carefully. In his ignorance he gave an answer too honest for a little boy in doubt.
‘My son, no man has ever ventured into this realm and come back to speak of it. We only know it exists because our forefather told us so. We have to believe it without seeing. It is the truth.’
Chibuzo asked no more questions. He made his way back into the hut fully believing that gods were nothing but fables, and even if they existed, they were evil for taking his mother away from him. From that day on he journeyed away from his belief in gods and spirituality. Now that he was desperately trying to reconnect with the gods, Chibuzo felt like he had completed a circle. He could tell that Afam was just in the same shoes and would one day come back to believing – it was a question of time. Chibuzo had walked the path Afam was walking now. He knew there would always be cracks in the walls of Afam’s disbelief. Even though Afam denied the gods he could not deny himself. After all this time, Chibuzo had come to understand that people loved themselves more than they love the gods. It is this love that kept us away from taking our own life. It had kept Chibuzo from taking his own life for so many years. Yes, he did not believe in prayers, he believed in fists and machetes, but he loved himself too much to believe that he was nothing but a physical being. He believed that somewhere inside him was a force that drove him. He believed in the existence of his soul and he feared to kill it.
Chibuzo looked at Afam and wondered how far he had gone, had he fallen to the point of believing that he did not possess a soul Chibuzo called that the point of no return. Probably not, he had heard Afam pray in the morning even though he snapped out of it with curses. Chibuzo thought about his life and what was left of it. There was no need to keep secrets anymore. The truth was that Chibuzo felt death around him. His sins had already caught up with him; it was only a matter of time till they finally wrestled him to the ground. He decided that if he slept to wake no more at least one man in the world should know who he really was.
Afam listened intently to Chibuzo’s life story and with each word his perception of the godly kind-hearted man changed. It was hard to tell who Chibuzo really was, this stranger who was without a heart, or the one Afam knew who shared food and gave up sleeping space. Afam guessed it was one and the same person, Chibuzo was just looking for an escape from reality and that was why he was running to spirituality. Afam did not believe that people changed, he believed that from the womb to the tomb we were born good or evil; as far as he was concerned there was no such thing as repentance or redemption. He wanted to tell Chibuzo that he was still the same man; that he would one day be tested and he would discover that he was still heartless and selfish. These were characteristics true to his nature and not a thousand whips from oyibo could change that. If there was truly a soul in him, on it the codes that defined his character were already inscribed and he could not change it, not now, not ever.
Afam held these thoughts to himself because he did not want to come across as judgmental. He told Chibuzo that he was sorry his life had to come with so much suffering, and he told himself to be aware of Chibuzo in the future. A man that had the heart to do all the things Chibuzo confessed to have done was a man to be mindful of, he was a man to be feared. Afam saw Chibuzo as a sleeping lion, all it took was one to step on his tail and death would follow.
As time passed the noise in the deck increased. The men had taken to making friends because silence was likely to drive them to insanity. They spoke of their pasts, and what they thought their futures would be before being captured. Each man listened intently to the other, trying to pull some strength from the words and emotions they carried. Conditions were getting even worse with time. The air was hot and hard to breathe in because it was polluted. The body wanted to move and muscles were cramping up. New fears were being realised and the only way to escape was in the stories about memories and lost hopes. Afam noticed one man who never spoke a word. He didn’t even raise his head to listen into any other conversation. Afam could sense the hopelessness in this man, he could sense this man giving up on life and instinctively Afam knew this man was going to be the first to go. He would either just die in this fixed melancholy of sadness and hopelessness, or he would find another way to take his life.
Every muscle in Afam’s body was screaming in pain by what he guessed to be midday. He wasn’t sure if he could take any more of this. For how much longer was he going to be trapped and crammed in this space? He dared not imagine going through the rest of the day like this. The noise had died down again and Afam could tell all the men were in as much pain as he was; they were all saving their strength.
The door to the deck swung open and the sunlight filled the captives with a joy they couldn’t really define. It didn’t bring them freedom, they were sure of that, but still just seeing it filled them with some hope. There were about six of the oyibo men and they each carried a rifle and lots of keys. Every man here knew what a rifle was and no one wanted it pointed at him. To the captives’ surprise, the oyibo men began to unlock the chains that fastened them to the floor and wall of the deck. There was a murmur of excitement as the captives moved their aching muscles. The relief brought by this movement was like drinking from a river after endless days of travelling in a desert.
One after the other, all the captives were led to the top of the deck. The moment daylight met Afam’s eyes he shut them tight. He was so used to the darkness now that the sudden rush of light made him feel light headed. It took a while to get used to not being in the slave deck and being in daylight. The captives were arranged all over the floor in the top deck and as this happened, Afam noticed some people he guessed to be in the lower deck. Most of them looked even darker than him. He guessed they weren’t from anywhere near Aboh. He listened to them speak and he realised they spoke a different tongue. It sounded like nothing he had heard before. Whips fell on backs to get the rows and columns of slaves in line but Afam was so grateful for the freedom of movement that the whips didn’t hurt as much as they used to.
There was a moment of silence when the lines were all formed and the oyibo men were tired of whipping. Every one of the captives waited in anticipation, wondering what this was about. Afam looked out to sea and wondered if they were all going to be cast into the water. He was a very good swimmer but with these metal chains on his feet and hands, he knew that water held nothing short of an agonizing death for him. He imagined the horrible sensation of water filling your lungs as you gasp for breath. Breathing was horrible in the deck, very close to unbearable, but at least there was air. The feeling of drowning would be definitely worse. It would be over in a few minutes but the pain in those few minutes Afam dared not to imagine.
To Afam’s left was the man he noticed to be dead silent in the deck. Now that they were in the light he took a good look at the man. He was very lanky and the conditions in the deck had pounded him into depression. Afam felt so sorry for this man he was willing to trade some of his will to live for the man’s depression. Afam figured it wasn’t just about the conditions in deck. There were probably other reasons behind the man’s sadness. Maybe his past was filled with pain and sorrow and this was pouring salt into the wound.
It happened so suddenly even Afam didn’t see it coming. The silent captive broke into a mad sprint, taking cover behind other slaves. None of the oyibo fired because they didn’t want to hit the wrong slaves. At this moment Afam expected that these men would charge in with battle. He was ready and willing to die fighting, but like everyone else, he was too afraid to initiate the revolution because he dreaded that his footsteps would not be followed. After all was said and done, they were all cowards. He was no exception.
The captive wasn’t making a run for a revolt, he was running to freedom even if it meant running to death. When the slave had made his way to a less crowded area, Captain Spooner raised his rifle. Without a word the sea of slaves on deck ducked with their hands over their heads, exposing the running slave for a clear shot. Spooner didn’t fire just yet; he waited to see where this man planned to run to.
Afam didn’t need to raise his face to know where the man was running to. He was running away from it all, he was running to his death. Afam wondered if it was cowardice or bravery that drove this man towards this. He asked himself if it was the fear of death that kept him away from suicide, or was it bravery to take the pain the world threw at him. There was no way of telling for sure so Afam just waited to see what would happen next.
The slave made it to the railing but that was as far as Spooner would let him go. The man seemed to be running towards Spooner. He was very familiar with slaves taking a captor with them overboard. He shouldn’t have stood so close to the rails in the first place. The sound of the rifle echoed on the deck as the weapon blasted away. The bullet went through the slave’s knee and he fell to the ground, his head falling on Spooner’s boot. Afam could only imagine the pain. Spooner didn’t aim for the leg because he had any plans to make it to Bristol with this slave. He did it to set an example. He wanted to tell the captives that they could move very fast but he could shoot even faster. Just to get the point across, he kicked the slave so hard it sent teeth flying out of the slave’s mouth, then he ordered two of his crewmen to throw the slave’s body overboard.
Afam watched as the screaming man was hurled up and tossed overboard. He imagined the pain the man would go through, the pain from the shot, the maddening sensation of salty water on the many lacerations he had sustained, and finally the agony of drowning. Spooner had put in a kind of fright that would last forever in the minds of the slaves. If there were thoughts of revolt, this demonstration had taught the slaves that Spooner was ready.
After the slave was thrown away, one of the oyibo men mounted a drum and played for the slaves to dance to. The feeling in the air did not encourage joy but the men danced along with Spooner because they feared his rifle. When the dancing session was over, the slaves were all showered. The salt water stung in their cuts and the long-handled brush that was used to scrub them made the experience even more painful. Screams erupted from each man as he walked into the ceremony of cleaning but they all complied with no resistance. It was at this point that Afam lost every hope of taking the oyibo to war. The fear in the captives guaranteed the oyibo’s victory. The slaves were led back into their holds and chained. The place was still filled with the stench of defecation and urine but Afam could tell someone had cleaned it out a bit, and he was grateful for that. Now that he was back in his shelf feeling a bit more relieved, he could think about a few things. His mind wandered back to Aboh and he thought about Adaobi and his mother.
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