Afam poured out his feelings on the trees till they were cut into pieces small enough to make good firewood. He was angry with himself for falling in love with Adaobi. What was he thinking this was going to lead to? Did he really think they were going to get married and have their own children? What a fool he was.
The squeaky noise of poorly lubricated moving metal joints broke the silence as Afam stood panting over his work. Someone was coming with a bicycle. After hearing everything Adaobi had to say the night before, Afam had become paranoid. He had the feeling he was going to be hunted sooner or later. Onwa was going to find out what his daughter had been up to and he was going to send an ogbunma (assassin) after him. Afam believed he wouldn’t die by the hands of another man. He believed there wasn’t a man strong enough to kill him. But ogbunmas weren’t just men, they were the finest assassins. These were men who devoted their lives to the art of killing. They were almost impossible to beat machete to machete, and as archers their accuracy was unmatched. But even with all the skill they had, they attacked in the shadows. They knew nothing about honour in battle. They killed men by knifing them in the back with poisoned daggers. Afam didn’t think he stood a chance against one.
The noise grew increasingly louder and Afam took cover behind a tree where he watched and waited. A man appeared with a barrel of palm wine tied to the seat of his bicycle as he wheeled it, pushing it by the handles. Afam knew this man was no ogbunma. He looked like he had seen at least fifty rains, maybe sixty. He was lanky, wrinkled and greying. The man had a chew-stick in his mouth and he spat every now and again as he hummed an old war song. Afam came out of hiding to have a closer look. The man had at least six missing teeth and the ones lucky enough to remain were brown and decaying. The aging man looked at Afam and smiled under the palm-woven hat that concealed most of his facial features. Afam was too worried to return the smile.
The stranger studied Afam from head to toe and he was reminded of his days as a young man. Full of life and energy, he used to be a hunter and a warrior. And even though very few people knew, he was a father too. He was Afam’s father. Everyone knew the story of Esimai Akubor’s disappearance. Not all knew what he looked like in flesh, but they knew who he was and what he had done. Esimai had led the people of Aboh to war times without number. He was six times winner of the village wrestling contest of Gidogbo. No man was ever known to make his back touch the earth. In those days Esimai was fast, strong, and skillful, but no man could escape the process of aging. The infinite power of time and a series of life decisions had crushed Esimai into a mere shadow of the man he once was. He was now an osu, just like Afam. After all he had done for his village they made him an outcast.
When Esimai was at his peak, there was a protest that he should be made Obi instead of Uzodima, who was presently the Obi. Then Esimai was a young warrior and Uzodima was only a child. The villagers loved Esimai for all he did for them. They loved him so much they wanted him to be their king. But Aham, the Obi at the time, could not let go of the power. Aham’s wife admitted the weakness of their growing son. At twelve years old Uzodima was not showing any signs of being a good Obi. Aham’s wife, Ndidi, told him that passing the crown to Esimai was the best for the village and it angered him. Aham knew that his wife was right, but he would not accept the truth. He was more concerned about keeping the wealth and power in his family than what was right for his people. How dare she tell him that his son was not fit to wear the crown? What an insult. She would pay for it with her life, and Esimai would take the fall.
Esimai was invited to the palace for a feast with the Obi. There he was given enough palm wine to put him to sleep. That night Ndidi’s corpse was moved to his house and buried on his farm. Aham was not a very strong man, but what he lacked in strength he made up for in cunning wisdom. He didn’t dig up the corpse the next day and claim that his wife was murdered by Esimai. First he used ogbunmas to kill every man who knew about the evil he plotted. After that he waited for several weeks, in which time he sent town criers to announce that the queen was missing. The village tore itself apart looking for Ndidi. Word flew to neighbouring villages, but no one found Ndidi. Aham acted like his heart was filled with grief and sorrow, even though he knew the truth and rejoiced at getting rid of this evil woman who didn’t want her own son to wear the crown.
After a few weeks Aham asked that all houses, huts, and farms should be searched intensively. When Ndidi was buried, Aham made sure the undertakers left a piece of jewellery on the spot. He also asked them to leave shreds of her royal cloth on the farm. All these were discovered and Esimai was blamed for both the murder and rape of the queen. He fell from grace and he fell hard. The people deserted him. He was supposed to be beheaded in the village square for what he had done, but before that day came he ran away.
Esimai had to kill the two guards that kept watch over him with his bare hands in his bid to escape, and that was the last the village ever saw of him. Now he was aging and significantly less powerful. The only piece of him left in Aboh was a story that had become more or less a fable. It had been retold over and over again around the night fires. Every time it was retold facts were distorted, sometimes details were added, others times they were omitted. When Esimai heard the story of his escape, the storyteller claimed he walked through a sea of men and finally he disappeared into the river that led to the end of the world. Esimai smiled at the young man telling this story to five small boys sitting in absolute amazement around the fire. He wondered how his story had changed so much in just a few years.
Afam swung his gaze to see if this was a trap. The trees were bare and the bushes seemed to be still apart from the occasional sweep of light winds. He sighed heavily in relief. Esimai watched the young man closely and saw the fear in his eyes. But even more than that, Esimai saw himself. It wasn’t the muscular frame; it wasn’t the way Afam held the machete. It was the face. Once upon a time Esimai looked just like this young man. No two human beings were exactly alike, even identical twins differed ever so slightly. But Esimai knew immediately that this young man was the son he and Onuhad had brought into the world.
He had visited Afam’s mother in the hut while Afam was chopping away at the wood. Even before he introduced himself, she already knew who he was. He had lost most of his muscle tone and with some new facial tribal marks he wore to blend into whatever tribe he had settled in, he would be unrecognizable to most people. But not to Onu, not after all they had been through and what he meant to her. He was gone for all those years and the village believed him to be dead. They also believed he was a rapist and a killer, but she knew him better than that. On the night of the supposed murder Esimai had staggered back to her hut in a drunken state. She washed him and put him to bed on the bamboo mat. Then Afam was only a child and he was fast asleep. Before sunrise Esimai was awake and he had to leave the hut before anyone discovered that he had spent the night with Onu and her son. Onu was sure Esimai had not killed Ndidi that night. But Onu knew better than to protest. Aham would have dealt with her just like he dealt with her lover. She wasn’t strong enough to escape like Esimai, not with Afam. And she wasn’t even sure if he really escaped. The entire village and neighbouring villages were searching for him – how could he have survived? Aham might have buried him next to Ndidi for all she knew.
While Esimai was in Onu’s hut he told her about the times he lived like an owl, travelling only by night. He journeyed past eight villages, slept in the most dangerous forests, and even experienced life in a village that spoke a different tongue. She sat in amazement, watching him. Onu knew the palm-wine tapper as Osondu Udegbunam, which means, ‘Run for life, the village won’t kill me’. He appeared out of nowhere pretending to have come from another village, and like most wine tappers associated with drunkards, no one took any notice of him under the straw hat he always wore to keep his face hidden. Not to mention Onu hardly left her hut and had only seen him in passing a handful of times at most. Now he was telling her that he was Esimai Akubor, the great wrestler and warrior, the father of her son. The closer she looked, the more traces of familiarity she saw. He was still her Esimai. The hardness of the life he lived had definitely made him age a lot more quickly, and with all his muscles gone he was barely a fading memory of his younger self. Listening to Esimai showed her that although a lot about him had changed, he was still the same man at heart.
Onu had never admitted Afam to be her true son in Aboh, much less confess that Esimai was the father. She wasn’t sure what would happen to her child if she admitted the truth to the village. But even more than that, there was another secret Onu carried. This secret not even Esimai knew and she wasn’t willing to share it with him. Not until she was ready to die.
She listened to the story of Esimai’s life in hiding and solitariness. It was full of strife and struggle. She smiled at Afam every morning because she could see so much of his father in him; the hardworking and determined man that Esimai was lived in their son. They both had the courage to fight and a spirit to endure, but they also had a fear of death and all else that was unknown. In those days Esimai told her that it was not the courage to face the enemy that kept him alive, it was the fear of dying.
Time could do a lot to the body, but it could never reach the Esimai in her mind. She had memories with him that could never be discoloured even if she lived to see a thousand rains. He was somewhere in her heart, somewhere too deep for the hands of time to ever reach. He was there with her love, and there he would always remain.
He gave her some palm-wine from his barrel for herself and their son. Onu hadn’t tasted wine in a long time. She drank a full horn and cried silently. She knew nothing could happen between them anymore, but just having him sitting in her hut and on her bamboo mat was enough to fill her heart with joy. All these years she wondered if he had died and where he was buried. Onu had some faith she wasn’t even sure where she drew from. She believed she was going to see him again, in this world or the next. And here he was, giving her some wine to drink. She looked him in his weary eyes and she knew she loved him and always would, no matter what.