When Onwa spoke to the witnesses after he dismissed his family he warned them about sharing what they knew, even though he knew that wasn’t going to be a problem. Neither of the witnesses would make it to sunrise. It pained Onwa every time he had to make someone disappear, but he had come so far. No one was worth what he had built. He was going to do everything in his power to protect his name. Not a single man in Aboh had achieved what he had. He was after all an osu by bloodline. But look at him now – his daughter was getting married to the future Obi. The lives of a maid and guard were an affordable sacrifice to preserve all his hard work.
The meeting was concluded with the witnesses and everyone began to head back to their huts and posts. Onwa called for his loyal advisor, Ofili. It was Ofili’s job to make the necessary arrangements for the disappearance of the witnesses. After Onwa sent for Ofili he asked that a message should be passed on to the Obi that he would be coming to see him immediately. He had a very important issue he wished to discuss with him.
Ofili came to his master’s service to be fully apprised of the situation. The old man did not speak a word while Onwa told him what needed to be done, not forgetting to emphasise the need to be careful when dealing with Ikem. Ofili was a man of very few words, but what he lacked in words he made up for in efficiency at his duty. If there was ever a man Onwa could trust with his life, it was Ofili. He didn’t burden Onwa with questions or prick his conscience. He just listened to what he was being told, and he left to make the words reality.
Onwa knew his advisor was growing old and that meant death was lurking in every corner for the man. He thought about a suitable replacement but no one came to mind. Keeping your mouth shut was an essential trait any man who would be Onwa’s right-hand man needed to possess. In this field the Aboh people often came up lacking. It was very easy for small talk to grow into big talk, and then big talk into gossip. In the proud nature of the Aboh people they liked to show that they were more in the know than anyone else. That often meant selling or leaking secrets. Onwa decided to postpone the thought of replacing Ofili. At least the man was still healthy, as far as old people go, anyway.
Two guards escorted Onwa from his compound to the Obi’s palace. It was a wide expanse of land dotted with huts of different sizes. On the front gates was a wooden sign that read ‘Obi Obi’ which translated to ‘the Obi of the Obi’. As a sign of trust Onwa’s guards were allowed to enter the compound with their weapons. The Obi’s family and Onwa’s family were now one, and as the saying goes, ‘Ka ara eli ada eli onwe fa’. ‘Men that dine at the same table do not eat themselves.’ This wasn’t Onwa’s hundredth visit to the palace but he knew the place and the Obi well enough to know just where the Obi would be waiting.
The hut was very small and detached from the rest of the other huts. It was a place for secret and delicate matters. The words of men spoken inside this hut could not travel to other ears. Onwa asked his guards to remain outside and out of earshot. Bringing guards into the hut in the presence of the Obi would be seen as very disrespectful. At this point Onwa felt a wave of fear pass through him and for the first time in a long while, he doubted himself. The kind of man he was tied up loose ends because he hated that feeling of unrest and uncertainty. What if the Obi’s pride was such that he would not let his son marry a woman who had been touched by a man before? What if he didn’t care that it was only a touch of the hand? Onwa chased these thoughts from his heart because he knew they would weaken his eyes. He believed the strength of a man’s word was not in the spoken words themselves, but in the eyes that he spoke them with. He wanted the Obi to look into his eyes and see reason with him.
The Obi was seated on a small stool opposite an empty one placed for Onwa. There was kola nut and palm wine in between them but Onwa didn’t have the stomach to indulge in such luxuries.
‘Obi’m isiska,’ ‘My Obi you are too strong,’ Onwa greeted and bowed as a sign of respect. The Obi gestured for Onwa to take a seat. For a breath Onwa wanted to decline the seat, but he remembered it was rude to look down on a man when discussing with him.
‘Kola?’ The Obi asked, motioning at the small metal plate.
‘My Obi, I will have your kola later, right now I must share with you an issue that worries me.’ The Obi’s brow furrowed at the sound of this. He knew Onwa was a king amongst men. He wasn’t a man to be taken lightly. If he declined kola for the sake of a stomach knotted with worry then something bad had truly happened. The Obi tried hard to hide his worry but it showed on his face.
Onwa pulled his stool closer and bent his head so that the Obi knew that they could talk only in whispers. The Obi leaned towards him with his ears open to hear what it was that made Onwa decline kola nut.
‘My daughter was touched today,’ Onwa stated. The statement was dropped rather loosely. It was too vague, too incomplete. The sound of it sparked up a lot of questions in the Obi’s mind and that was exactly what Onwa intended to do. He watched the Obi’s eyes in the darkness of the hut and he could see a flicker of fear and a lot of confusion. Onwa instilled all these feelings in the Obi because he needed to be in charge of the conversation. He needed to be the one being listened to. He needed to be the one giving the advice, causing the influence.
‘How did this happen?’ The Obi croaked.
‘It was a servant, but he only touched her with his hand. Before he could go any further she fought him off and a guard came into the hut.’ Onwa watched the Obi for signs of how he felt or what he was thinking. It was clear that the Obi wasn’t pleased, but he knew what was at stake here. Kings from faraway lands had journeyed for days to make it to this occasion. He couldn’t just send town criers away to ask them to turn around.
When Onwa saw that the Obi was battling with himself, drowning in his own fears and doubts, he decided to throw him a lifeline.
‘My Obi, I have everyone who knows about this. They will not live past the darkness of tonight. This doesn’t have to be a problem. You can ask your son not to take her to bed until she bleeds to show you that she is not with child.’ Onwa watched the Obi even closer. This was it, the moment of truth. Onwa had played it out just like he planned to, and the Obi had played to his prediction all the way. All he could do now was hope that the Obi did not shake his head in disagreement.
The Obi believed Onwa to be a man who could be trusted. If Onwa said he would take care of something, you could consider it done. The secret was safe, no doubt about that. Now it was only a question of pride. Would he, the Obi of Aboh, allow his son marry a woman who had been touched? But it was only by hand, and she did not give herself willingly. If all these great men from far lands had not taken their time to make their way down to Aboh, he would have been in a better position. In truth he really had very little choice here.
‘Onwa,’ the Obi said with a heavy sigh, ‘this must remain under the ground.’ That was all the Obi needed to say – Onwa knew what the implications were.
Both men rose from their stools without saying anymore. Onwa fought back the expression of the relief he felt. He didn’t want the Obi thinking that he was about to get complacent in the least way. He also fought back a smile of triumph. He had played them all, Adaobi, Chinelo, the Obi, and the Obi’s family. What little minds they had for thinking he was in the dark all along, that they were using him. One day he will tell Chinelo the truth, no time soon, but the day would come. Onwa was a proud man, he wasn’t going to let Chinelo die believing that in all his wisdom she played him for a fool. As he was escorted out of the palace he dreamed of the day he would tell Chinelo that he knew all along. The look on her face he couldn’t even imagine. For now, though, he would keep his mouth shut. There was nothing that got you into more trouble in Aboh than speaking of things that were not to be spoken of. He would let her bask in the glory of her apparent wisdom for the time being.
* * *
Onu was not getting any better. Her days were getting longer and she could hardly sleep when night finally came. She had come to accept the fact that something had happened to her son, but she could not bring herself to believe that death had claimed him. The assumption of Afam being dead drove her towards suicidal thoughts. She sometimes asked herself when she would see him again. The answer to that question never came back to her, but she believed he would be back one day. Just like Esimai had walked into her hut after so many years, so she believed Afam would eventually one day walk in.
She thought back to the day Afam was born. She remembered holding him in her arms and drawing so much joy from him. She remembered telling herself that children were a gift from the gods, and she remembered believing it more every day with Afam. But she also remembered her contemplation of whether to kill him as a baby or let him grow into a world that had no good place for him. For all these years she had never regretted letting him live, but today she was questioning her decision. She brought him into this world to suffer; this was all her fault. Onu knew blaming herself for Afam’s misfortune was not going to bring him back. However it was natural for her to blame someone and there was no one else to take the blame. She asked herself if all the years of joy and happiness would be worth the years of mourning and sadness she was about to face. Afam had built her a castle of memories that she could live in for a long time, but she wasn’t sure how long till she needed more rooms in the castle. After all was said and done, she told herself letting Afam live was the right thing to do. It didn’t matter if she did it out of her own selfish desire to have someone to love and someone to be loved by. He was her son and she loved him. That was all that mattered.
There was something else that bothered Onu in the pit of her soul. It was something that happened the day Afam was born, a bad omen from the gods. Onu ignored the gods. They had taken so much from her she wasn’t about to let them have Afam too.
What was past was past, what had happened had happened. Onu told this to herself trying to climb out of the abyss of worry she had dug herself into. The problem was that there was nothing she could hold on to that would drive her future. All she had was memories. No plans, no real hopes, no future. She kept telling herself that Onwa would pay for this. But in reality it was easier said than done. Onu knew she had to be careful. She felt she was ready to die, but she knew when the moment of truth came, when her throat was before the blade of a machete, she was going to feel very different. This she knew not because she was wise enough to know that all men of flesh, blood, and bone dreaded death, but because the fear had covered her when she tried to take her own life. She had already tried to end her misery.
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