Afam walked through the woods until he was deep inside and could not be seen by any passing villagers. A lifetime of isolation had conditioned him to loneliness. He was so used to being alone that even when he could afford company he avoided it. Through Afam’s lonely days he had not just learnt to be on his own, he had learnt to want to be alone too
He hacked the wood with all the strength in his body, unleashing blows full of pain and anxiety. Afam was particularly anxious at this moment because he had learned something about Adaobi that could mean the end of his happiness. If he had heard this from another tongue he would have passed it for a rumour. But he heard it from the horse’s own mouth, Adaobi told him herself.
It was a particularly beautiful night to be out. The sky was clear, dotted only by the glow of tiny stars. Fireflies danced around the young lovers as they found each other’s hands in search of some desperately needed safety. At this moment there was nowhere else in the world they’d rather be, everything felt so right, so complete. Adaobi turned to Afam in worry but when he turned to her, she smiled in an attempt to bury her feelings. Afam saw that the smile was only a veil no different from the one his mother wore almost every day of her life. He could tell Adaobi had something on her mind, something she was afraid to share with him. He feared it was a secret that could ruin their relationship. Whatever it was, she did not have the stomach to speak of it with him, at least not easily.
Afam smiled back but he was a bad liar. She could see through his disguise without even trying. At that moment she knew he could feel her tension, he knew she was holding something back.
‘You can see right through me.’ Adaobi said in her soft voice. Afam sighed heavily and took off the mask, allowing his worry to be written over his face.
‘I know there is something you are not telling me.’ Afam didn’t like to bother people for their secrets, but on this occasion he felt he had to know. This was the girl he loved. He felt that her secrets were his too, just like his were hers. Whether they liked it or not, their lives were now intertwined by the things they did in the shadows. They could not afford to hide anything from each other.
‘Adaobi, whatever it is you can tell me.’ He watched her think of the words she would say to him. There was no way of putting it to Afam that it wasn’t going to spell trouble, big trouble.
‘It’s my father,’ Adaobi finally said.
Afam imagined the worst and his heart skipped a beat. He knew whispers about their secrets were floating around, but to think that these whispers echoed loud and far enough to reach Onwa’s ears was worrying.
‘Oma ife anyi na eme?’ Afam asked in a worried tone, wanting to know if his fears were true.
‘Mba mba,omaro ife obuna.’ Adaobi assured him that her father did not know about them and he relaxed.
There was a moment of silence and in that moment, the two lovers wondered what would become of them should light ever be cast on their doings. They were playing with fire. They knew that from the start. Now that the flames seemed to be getting closer they were wondering just how deep it would burn. Aboh was a small village. They knew some people must have picked up on their movements, but they trusted the gods to keep those mouths shut. The lady that wove Adaobi’s hair had once mentioned her suspicions to Adaobi. On that occasion she bribed the lady with food and jewellery to stay quiet but it made her wondered just how many other people knew.
There was no real proof and no one had ever caught them red-handed. Afam made sure they entered and left the bushes by different routes, and at different times. Sometimes Adaobi complained about his cautiousness, but he never let down his guard and she never broke the rules. But in a village like Aboh, one could never be too careful. There were too many eyes itching to see such things, too many mouths aching to speak of it, and too many ears open to listen.
Adaobi broke the silence with the bad news.
‘My father has formally offered me to the prince in marriage.’
Afam had imagined this before. He had thought about the day she would walk up to him and tell him that she was going to leave him, but that did not stop it from hitting him hard. In just an instance his life was turned upside-down. He felt the urge to grab her hand and runaway forever, right then and there. But that was only possible in his imagination, and he knew it. They both had a life in Aboh, no matter how little a life it was. Afam wasn’t ready to leave his mother, Adaobi wasn’t even sure she could elude her father. The moment she was found to be missing, the roads would be flooded with men searching for her. Word would spread across the neighbouring villages and there would be nowhere for her to hide. And if she were found with Afam, he would be killed in the village square, probably whipped to death. That wasn’t the punishment for fornication but Adaobi knew what her father was capable of doing. He would say it was a kidnap and she would have to play along, leaving Afam in the cold to die.
Afam tried to speak but words were lost in his mind. What was he supposed to tell her? That everything was going to be all right? That there was a way out of this? They both knew it was close to the end of their romance. They could continue after Adaobi got married but the dangers in that even Afam wasn’t sure he could stomach. In truth, the danger wasn’t the main reason why Afam felt he couldn’t continue. Afam was now so much in love with Adaobi that jealousy would not let him share her bed with another man. He imagined sharing her bed with Dike and it brought him anger so deep it made him think about murdering the prince. He felt his body tense as his heart raced. What was going to become of them?
Adaobi reached out to him and held his right hand. The mere touch of her soft and delicate skin sent currents down his body. He was too attached to her love to lose her now. From the beginning he knew there was no future with Adaobi but that did not stop him from trying to make one. Now he was wondering if it was a big mistake. The only thing Afam thought to be worse than not having love was having it and losing it. Adaobi held his hands tightly and placed them over her chest so he could feel her full breast and her beating heart behind it. For the first time in his life Afam felt like the world was really crashing down on him and him alone. All his life he had been isolated so he never had problems with other people. The only problems he had had been with animals in the bushes and his mother, who never stopped wallowing in sorrow. This was the first time he felt the cold hands of loss encroaching slowly but surely, and it frightened him.
He thought about sailing on the gigantic boats towards the world’s end, if only that was where they took you. An endless voyage to somewhere he could start afresh, find a new beginning. A land that would judge him not on his past but the promise he held for a great future. The oyibo’s land where men were so pure they had white skin and blue eyes. Maybe with time he, too, would be cleansed and be as fair as the oyibo.
‘We could runaway, you and I.’ Afam said. Adaobi smiled as she watched the stars, she knew there was nowhere for them to run to.
‘Yes, we could. But where to? This world is too small for us to hide.’
‘We can follow oyibo to their land. There they say crops grow themselves and you never get old.’ Afam wasn’t sure why he imagined that that was the case in the oyibo man’s land – perhaps another one of his many blind assumptions.
This was the first time Adaobi heard that crops grew without cultivation in the oyibo’s land or that people did not grow old. It made her smile. Not at the beauty she imagined if crops actually just shot out of the ground on their own. She smiled at the beauty in Afam’s absolute ignorance. He could not have been any more naïve. Over time Adaobi had noticed that the isolation Afam lived in robbed him of so much knowledge. He was fond of believing in assumptions he had made and more often than not, they were false.
‘Do you know what really happens to the people that are taken to the oyibo land?’ Adaobi asked.
All Afam knew about almost anything was from eavesdropping and his own assumptions, so he admitted to his ignorance.
‘No, do you know what happens there?’
She could now see his eyes and the curiosity that filled them as he waited for an answer.
‘Our people that go there are turned to oru.’ Adaobi said.
Afam could not bring himself to believe it. Slavery was the only punishment worse than banishment. If Afam had the chance to choose between slavery and death, he’d choose to be killed. The thought of being made to work all day under someone else was a nightmare to him. The Obi had a lot of slaves and so did the rich chiefs like Adaobi’s father. There were slaves that worked for payment like shelter and food, like Afam’s mother did when he was younger. But from the look in Adaobi’s eyes when she spoke of these orus, Afam could tell they were slaves who had committed crimes like murder. Sometimes captured warriors from other lands were enslaved too. Their lives were absolutely unbearable, to say the least. They were flogged, starved, and made to work for long hours with little water. Afam could not imagine living their life.
After he thought about what he had just heard, he chose to ask more questions before believing.
‘Are you sure about this? How is that possible?’
‘I don’t know much about how it is done, but I know they see a lot of suffering. Please no matter what you do, don’t go on oyibo’s big boat. They kidnap people sometimes, you should be very careful when returning to the village after hunting. I thought you knew these things.’ Adaobi told Afam everything she knew about oyibo and he listened in absolute amazement. Afam remembered town criers announcing young men, women and children who had gone missing. He often wondered how these people disappeared. Now he knew the truth but he still couldn’t believe it. So the men with golden hair were actually devils in disguise. His hopes of a perfect world had come crashing down when he needed it the most. All this time he had been mistaking hell for heaven.
Adaobi could see that Afam was troubled. He was with her but he was miles away. He dabbled in many thoughts, lost in his own mind. She moved closer to him and rested her head on his shoulder.
‘Afam, we just have to wait and see how things go. There is no telling what would happen tomorrow.’
Afam appreciated her optimism but he couldn’t think like that. All his life he lived in a harsh reality. This romance was about as far as his dreams went. Afam wanted to hope that a plague would break out and kill the prince but he knew that was wishful thinking. He said nothing to Adaobi. Staring into the deep night he allowed himself to wander far and wide in his silence, hoping to find a solution that was simply out of reach.
The night passed and they said next to nothing to each other. When it was time for them to part they rose to their feet and brushed off the clay and grass from their bodies. Adaobi stood close to him and he pulled her in so her breast pressed on his chest. He kissed her on the forehead and embraced her tightly. That was when tears spilled from his eyes but he wiped them on her shoulders before she could see him. It was not manly to cry in the open. Afam had lived his life in pain, sorrow, and agony, but he had never felt like this. As tears rolled down his cheeks and he brushed them off Adaobi’s shoulders, he knew his life was never going to be the same again. Whether it would change for the better or worse, he had no idea. All he knew was that it was never going to be the same. Just like his mother carried a secret that shaped her life with grief, regret and sorrow, Afam now carried one that was going to shape his life too. The question he asked himself now was what would this secret shape his life with: pain, anger, sorrow, regret or death? Of all the thoughts he had on what would become of him, there was not one good feeling. Life was not going to get better; thinking otherwise was just hoping against hope.
Afam somehow found it in himself to believe it wasn’t over. He had no idea how he was going to fight this. He wasn’t even sure he could fight it at all. But he wasn’t about to give up what brought him the only true happiness he knew, not without a fight at the least, even if he was going to lose. What else was there to live for? Afam imagined life without Adaobi in it. He might have as well been dead. He couldn’t imagine how he had survived all these years without her. In their embrace, he looked to the sky and asked the gods to help him. He listened for an answer. He watched for a sign. Nothing.
Story by William Ifeanyi Moore