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, Chapter 21
Living in the lower deck made it particularly hard to tell what day it was and Afam thought it was a good thing he didn’t know. If he realised that he had been here for just over a week, it might cause him to lose the will to live. Some of the slaves were already quitting. Some were claimed by illnesses ranging from small pox to malnutrition; others were simply losing their taste for life and falling into a fixed melancholy that ultimately commanded their bodies to stop functioning. Every now and again, some of the white men would walk into the deck and take out a body and some mess with it. Of course watching those men frightened Afam, as it could so easily be him who was being taken away to be dumped into the water.
Afam had begun to adjust to the suffering as it was now more or less a way of life for him. His sense of normality was coming to accept the strokes of whips as natural. The chains were more or less a part of him now. It made him think about cattle rearing. He never reared any cattle but he had seen cattle being flogged. Now he wondered if the cattle realized that their lives could go on without the torment, or if they had come to accept it as something that must happen for their lives to continue, like breathing.
Afam hadn’t exchanged words with Chibuzo since the incident of Spooner and the runaway slave. They had asked each other about their bodies but that was about it. They both desperately wanted to talk but didn’t really know what to say. They had just finished exercising on the upper deck and were now back in holding. Both men had sensed the grave fear of the slaves and it was hurting them so much that they couldn’t keep it inside any more.
‘We should have war them?’ Chibuzo said. He spoke without looking at Afam so it appeared like he spoke to himself. Afam didn’t look at him either but his answer was clear,
‘We are all cowards. Our brothers that jumped over this ship are stronger than us.’ This was the first time Chibuzo had heard Afam refer to anyone as a brother. It was the first time he had heard Afam associate himself as family with anyone. Afam only realised what he had said after he had spoken. He thought about his words and why he said them. Strangely, he didn’t feel like taking them back. The truth was that Afam felt like a part of these people. He had a sense of belonging with the other slaves. He was one of them. He was not treated any different and it made him feel accepted. Conditions in the deck might have been an absolute nightmare but it didn’t remove this feeling of acceptance from Afam. In the midst of all the suffering the men had come together even without speaking. They had become one big family. There were very few conversations but even without words they willed each other to live with gestures. They exchanged nods, stares, sighs, and even smiles, no matter how short they lasted.
Chibuzo chose not to speak about Afam’s choice of words. He pondered on what Afam had actually said. Was he, Chibuzo, really a coward? He liked to think otherwise but there was no reason to suggest he was a hero. A true hero was a man of great heart. It wasn’t supposed to matter what others were doing or thinking. Whether others would follow in his steps was not supposed to be an issue. If he had an idea, a cause, a reason, he was supposed to die for it even if everyone else thought him to be crazy. After all was said and done, Chibuzo figured that Afam was indeed right. He was willing to fight but so was every man on the deck. It was the same fear that held him back that held them by the heels too. At the end of the day, they were all weak and they were all afraid. Chibuzo had to forget any thoughts of revolting because he could clearly see that it wasn’t going to happen.
The two men spoke about the politics of the ship: the awful conditions, the fact that the oyibo men were forcefully sleeping with their women, and everything else that they couldn’t do a thing to change. Even though their talk changed nothing at all, both men drew strength from it and it drew them further away from insanity. There was something about the darkness and silence in the deck that played with a man’s mind and if something wasn’t done about it, it could lead a man to places in himself he had rather not be. Afam wondered how long this would continue but he made no attempts to ask because he knew only the oyibo had the answers.
* * *
Life in Aboh seemed to move on without taking any note of Afam’s disappearance. He had been gone for days now and Onu had confronted the town crier about this. She told him all about her son and the connections with Onwa’s daughter. She even went as far as admitting to him that Afam was her true son, flesh of flesh, blood of blood. The town crier appeared to have listened to every word, but nothing was done about it. Onu listened for the sound of the ogene (small metal gong) when the town crier passed every morning. She hoped to hear something about her son, or at least to hear the town crier announce that he was missing. Her listening was in vain.
Onu had no doubt whatsoever that this was Onwa’s work. Now that her son was gone she felt she had very little reason to live and it made her a danger to both Onwa and herself. She was willing to stage an open confrontation with Onwa if it came to it, and she was willing to die as a result of it. This meant that she had to make sure it was worth it. Walking down the streets and screaming things about Onwa would cause a stir but she needed more than that. Onu was out for revenge – she was willing to destroy Onwa as he had destroyed her. There was the question of whether Afam was right or wrong for sleeping with Onwa’s daughter, but that was the least of Onu’s worries. He never raped her, he was protected by the laws of the land. Onu being property of an alusi gave her some protection. By the laws of the land Onwa was not allowed to touch her, but she knew the kind of man Onwa was. He had little or no fear of the gods. He was a man who believed in his strength being in his own heart and hands. He was first his own god before any carved image or sacred stone. He would find a way to kill her even if he had to make it appear like she took her own life.
Onu taking her own life would require another woman to be sacrificed to the gods. Onu didn’t wish the suffering she felt to befall any woman in this world, but that would not keep her from doing what she felt was her duty to her son. She felt some fear going after Onwa, but she was willing to walk through it. Onu was less afraid of death as she felt she had nothing to live for. She wasn’t going to miss anyone and she wasn’t going to be missed either. There was nothing holding her in this world and whether it was imagined or true, she could hear her name being called on the other side.
The first approach Onu thought of was to walk into the market square with a scream before telling her story. She knew there would be an audience but all the ears she wanted would not be there. She would shout at the top of her voice and the market would listen and maybe grieve with her, but where would it go from there? Rumours would be floated and Onwa as usual would find a way of burying the truth. The ear Onu really needed was that of the Obi and his family. If she could tell them that her son, an outcast, had slept with the daughter of the man they wanted their son to be married to, it would do irreparable damage to Onwa’s family. The question was whether they would take her seriously, much more believe her words. What Onu was sure of was that it would cause some unrest and that might cause someone to dig around, and hopefully they would find the truth. It was very risky. Playing with Onwa like this was like playing with fire. Onu was aware of all these things but she had told herself that nothing in the world was going to stop her. She would rather die knowing that she had tried than live with the regret that she never got to know the outcome.
The wedding was now only days away. Town criers in every village went around beating their ogenes and announcing that the prince of Aboh would soon be a married man. The news provoked a lot of rumours and excitement, but nothing that would stop the wedding from taking place. Kings and chiefs from other villages made long trips to pay their respects because they knew one day Uzodima will be no more and Dike would wear the crown.
As the days passed Adaobi’s panics worsened. The moment of truth was coming soon. Her mother had not said anything about the problem of her not being a virgin. In fact, Chinelo acted like she wasn’t even aware of this grave problem. Adaobi stayed up night after night in turmoil. Her mind filled with so much fear it caused her to sweat and lose her breath. She couldn’t imagine what was going to follow after the truth was uncovered. The shame it was going to bring upon her family was unimaginable, the pain it would bring to her, the anger it will cause her father. Adaobi tried to tell herself that there was a way out but now that the wedding was just days away, she could not still see this way out. It was hard to convince herself that everything was all right.
She lay in her bed facing the ceiling and she held nothing back. On this rainy night she poured it all out. The pain of not seeing Afam ever again, the fear of spending the rest of her life with a man she did not love, the fear of living without freedom and anger at her father for bringing this upon her. She even cried for her mother’s apparent neglect, and she cried for the gods that she now felt were no longer with her. The cry was long, hard, and loud, she let out heart-aching screams that could only be drowned in rain and thunder. She cried until she was out of breath.
Afam had left Aboh never to be back, but he had not left Adaobi. Every single day she thought of him and wished him love wherever they were taking him to. She was getting through each day not because she ate good food and did little work, but because she dwelled on memories of a love she once knew. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t bury the memory of watching him walk into the bush. She remembered his eyes staring at her and she wondered if he expected her to show him a sign. She missed him so much she would have happily given anything in the world for one more day with him. It was hard to believe that he would never hold her again, kiss her again, and make love to her again. It all seemed very unreal. Adaobi knew that a time like this would come eventually, but she never dared to imagine it because she knew she couldn’t deal with the loss. Time without number she told herself that she had to move on with life, but she could not let go of Afam. He was in a place in her heart that nothing in the world could reach to remove. The memory of him was never going to fade, come ten or a hundred rains. She was never going to forget him. She often wondered if he felt the same. Did he stay up at night thinking of her too?
Chinelo used the rain as a cover to make her way out of her hut for Adaobi’s room. She had not forgotten about the problem at hand. How could she? She had lied to Onwa.
‘Adaobi, stop crying, we have a lot to talk about.’
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