Onu stood in what appeared to be the centre of the crowd. People stared fixatedly in absolute suspense and amazement. Each time her mouth opened and closed as she tried to voice words that escaped her, the people watched, willing her to overcome the fear they knew was stealing her voice. They knew this because even though all they did was sit and watch, they too felt afraid for Onu.
The Obi eyed a few of his guards. It was his way of telling them to be ready for action. The two men took casual steps forward just so they were closer to Onu for when they had to make a move on her. Onu’s eyes welled with tears as memories of her son flashed before her mind. She pictured him coming back from hunting, pictured him bringing home wood for the fire. She pictured him eating pounded yam and licking egwusi soup off his fingers. These memories shattered the already broken pieces of her heart and as this happened, she opened her mouth and the words didn’t escape her this time.
Anyone who knew what pain was could see it written all over Onu’s face. There wasn’t any doubt that what she had to say was nothing but the truth. From the tone she used when she uttered her first word, it was clear to see that she was speaking not from her head but her heart.
‘Afam…’ she yelled with a dying animal’s cry. Her voice was the sound of loneliness, pain, sorrow, and suffering. It was the sound of a dying woman. At the mention of the name, Onwa felt a sharp jolt in his heart and a type of horror he had never known came over him. Onwa had been in some deadly fights, but nothing like this. Everyone he had crossed paths with before had something to lose, a weakness. But what weakness could this osu woman possibly have? She had nothing so there wasn’t anything to take from her. Onwa imagined the life she lived; death was more of an escape than a punishment to her. He was fighting someone who wasn’t afraid of losing.
The wailing of Afam’s name awoke the crowd. It readied them to be able to see the world through the eyes of the storyteller. Onu didn’t just want to tell the people what happened between her son, Adaobi, and Onwa. She wanted them to see it with eyes that would allow them to understand and appreciate it. The story was more than a legend that was meant for moral training, it was the true life of a woman and the suffering she was going through. She wanted them to read between the lines of her story so that they could find the heart behind her words. From the eyes she spotted in the crowd she knew that this was the right way to start the story. But before she could continue it all went wrong. Onu felt her entire world fall apart in a single moment that passed so fast it was gone before she could think of a way out.
Adaobi and her mother held their hearts in their hands, praying that the words Afam’s mother was about to speak would disappear. Adaobi was visibly shaking but Onu had stolen all the attention so that no one but Dike, who had his hand on her back, noticed it. She tried hard to control her breathing but her heart was beating so fast that the slightest lack of air would have caused her to faint. The appearance of Afam’s mother was like the appearance of a ghost thought to have been chased away, the resurfacing of a memory believed to have been buried forever.
Onu was on the verge of spilling her heart out to the entire village when the Obi’s deep voice silenced her.
‘How dare you stand up before men?’ he asked, ‘Have you forgotten your place as a woman?’ The Obi didn’t need to spell it out for his guards. Two men with heavy arms grabbed Onu from behind, firmly gripping each arm. Onu felt the strength of the men’s grip and she knew struggling was a lost course. She felt the urge to just set her tongue on fire and burn the people with everything in her, but she knew one of the men holding her would slap his hand over her mouth before she could get past three words. All Onu could think about at this moment was what would be done to her. Now that death seemed closer to her doorstep, she realised she wasn’t ready to let it in.
A feeling Onu could best describe as madness came over her and she lost every sense of control and rationale. She was crying, kicking, screaming, and showering curses at Onwa. The guards clapped their palms over Onu’s mouth but that didn’t stop her entirely. She was in a state of pure rage. Onu found the guard’s middle finger and she bit it harder than the man imagined she could.
‘Murderer, you killed my son!’ That was the last statement Onu made before the guards carried her away from the crowd with a tighter grip on her jaw. Onu kicked and made muffled sounds, trying in vain to break free.
Every person in the crowd knew that Onu was speaking the truth about Onwa, but no one had the heart to come out and share their story of how he had wronged them too. Not after what they had seen.
The Obi waited almost a minute after Onu was out of sight and earshot before he proceeded with the ceremony. He didn’t give the opportunity for someone else to speak because Onu’s little act had shaken him. He just made the wedding wish for his son and his daughter-in-law.
‘May we not have bad people or bad spirits. But if we must have one of the two evils, let us have a bad spirit. A spirit goes away once you give it what it asks for, but a person is never contented. Give a bad man one cowry and he would want ten more. May bad people stay away from our home.’
The crowd murmured their agreement and Adaobi rose to her feet and took a seat by her husband’s right-hand side. Her breathing was reverting to normal as fear faded from her face. She wondered if Dike had felt her shaking – he probably did. What would he think of it? At least Onu was merciful enough not to tell the crowd why her father murdered Afam. Adaobi wondered if telling Onu that her son was still alive but so many miles away would make her feel better. Was it going to hurt more to know that he was alive somewhere, but he would never see her again? That she will never know what her son turned out to be? Or was it going to hurt more to go on believing that Afam was buried and rotting somewhere in the earth? Adaobi wasn’t sure which would give less heart-ache. What she was sure of was that she wasn’t going to be wandering into Onu’s hut anytime soon to share stories.
The music filled the air again but this time it was slower. People began to make their way back to their homes, talking in whispers about Onu’s episode. As the crowed eroded slowly, Adaobi felt night coming upon her. She tried not to imagine Dike touching her but she knew it was inevitable. She felt a wave of relief for a second. Things could have been worse. Adaobi felt like she had escaped her past in a way.
A starless night covered the village in the form of darkness that was only broken by fires. Children sat in circles around the fires to listen to stories of warriors and wars, tales of morality, and general advice from elders.
Tonight Adaobi knew nothing about fires or stories. She was inside Dike’s hut. Neither her father nor mother was here to protect her. It was just her and her husband. Adaobi refused to accept Dike as a husband. She thought of him as the man she was married to. But what did it matter now that she was in his hut kneeling by his bed, waiting for him?
Dike stood outside his hut in the stillness of the night. He knew he was nothing like as wise as his father. He knew he wasn’t a warrior either. The truth was that he thought himself to be nothing but a weak coward. But that was what made him the man he was. It didn’t matter that he was weak, what mattered was that he knew himself well enough to know that he was weak, and he was man enough to accept it too. Dike knew that his father was very worried about the day when he, Dike, would have to wear the crown. His father never said it to his face, but Dike knew behind his father’s smiles there was sorrow, the sorrow of a failed father. Dike had passed the stage of denying the fact that he cared a lot about what his father thought of him. He had come to admit to himself that it mattered more than anything else in the world to him, but that did not provide the answers of how to be a better son. Dike had contemplated telling his father that he wanted to join the village warriors in times of war, but his fear of enemies with heavy machetes and angry eyes that thirsted for blood kept him away from the battlefield. He had seen the bodies of warriors that didn’t make it back home alive. He had also seen those of warriors that didn’t make it home in one piece. Sometimes it was hard to tell which ones were more unfortunate.
For all this time Dike had cooperated fully with his father over the marriage with Adaobi. Without a doubt he was physically attracted to her. He was a man, after all and she was a beautiful woman. It was no secret in Aboh that every man, even the married ones, wished they could take her to bed. Now that Dike knew that she was by his bedside, waiting for him to come and take her to do as he pleased, everything felt different. It was true that men always wanted what they couldn’t have. Dike believed it was in a man’s soul to be greedy, he believed it was in his nature. But now that he had what he wanted, he realised he didn’t want it so much after all. It was nothing like what he thought it would be. He had watched Adaobi closely during the wedding and he had seen that she was married to him but her heart was very much beyond his reach. He could tell that her marriage to him wasn’t out of love. She was only fulfilling her duty as a daughter to her father.
It didn’t matter what Dike’s father thought of him, one day Dike was going to be Obi. Death after all was the only thing promised to life; not even the Obi could escape it. Dike also knew that it was very important to have the right woman seated by your side when you wore the crown. As the Obi’s son he was fortunate enough to be given a very detailed history lesson on past Obis. He had noticed how the Obis who had stubborn wives had taken to beating them physically to shape them into the right women. Dike didn’t lie to himself, he admitted not having what it took to break a woman like Adaobi with his fists. But he also didn’t trick himself into being optimistic. He admitted from the start that the marriage was only going to get worse. Dike had come to realise that just like love blossomed and grew with time, so did hatred deepen and darken too.
Another thing Dike wrestled with outside his hut on this very strange night was the little act that the osu woman had put up. Dike didn’t know much, but he knew a woman in pain when he saw one, and even more than that, he knew a cover-up when he saw one. That woman had a lot to say and every single word of it was true. Dike tried to put the pieces of the puzzle together but couldn’t get it to form one piece. It was like cracked clay that wouldn’t fit together.
All these thoughts had stolen Dike’s will to take a woman to bed, but that was not the main reason Dike told himself that he was going to sleep on the other side of the bed facing the wall. He wanted to show Adaobi that just because he lusted after her, it didn’t mean that she had power over him. He also wanted to show her that it did mean something to him that she actually made love to him. He didn’t want her to sleep with him because she was bound by duty as his wife.
Adaobi noticed Dike’s figure enter the hut. She watched him in sheer anticipation mixed with fear that made her heart beat so fast and hard she feared she might faint at the touch of his skin. She tried to seek his eyes in the darkness but it wasn’t possible. She swallowed as he walked past her without even a passing glance. It was at this point that she realised that something was wrong and it brought a few questions to her mind. She had spent so much time resenting Dike that she had forgotten to think of his life as a person. Who was to say that Dike too wasn’t marrying her to fulfil his duty as the son of the Obi? In fact, Dike was even more duty-bound than she. Who was to say he didn’t despise her every breath? There was a chance that just like she would kill him if she knew she could get away with it, he too planned to do the same. The only difference was that if Dike chose to pull a knife while she was asleep, he would get away with it. Onwa would not make it easy for Dike and the Obi, but all in all, the Obi was the most powerful man in Aboh; not even Onwa had what it took to bring him down.
Without saying a word, Dike laid on the raffia bed facing the wall so he couldn’t even see Adaobi. She didn’t know what exactly to make of this. Adaobi was far from vain but she knew she was beautiful. It surprised her to discover that a man could pass the offer of taking her to bed so easily. Perhaps there was more to the man she was married to than she thought.