Esimai was filled with guilt for what had become of mother and son. He felt like they were both osus because of him. He stood before his son and he realised he did not have it in him to tell the young man the truth. Fear like he had never known, even through his days on the run and in hiding, gripped him by the stomach. He thought Afam would notice the resemblance, or by some supernatural instinct know that this aging and weary man wheeling a bicycle was his father. Nothing like that happened. His son just watched him with continuous loss of interest as his eyes swayed to the chopped wood that now needed to be arranged and tied in a bundle before being carried home.
Afam greeted the old man like custom demanded, apologising for not greeting earlier. The man responded to the greeting, which was unusual. People normally just nodded their acknowledgement of Afam’s greeting and moved along, sometimes they even pretended not to have heard him.
No matter how hard Afam studied him, he couldn’t tell it was his childhood hero. To Afam this was the palm-wine tapper, but he couldn’t hide the surprise on his face when the man returned the greeting. He hurriedly walked off and started gathering the firewood. Esimai watched in amazement. This was his son Onu had told him all about. She said he was the best thing in her life. She looked on him as a gift he, Esimai, had left her with. She told him about how he went hunting alone or with hunters from neighbouring villages, and how he fetched her firewood. She told him about how he was placed in the frontline in times of battle but he still came back alive, as he would always promise before leaving. Esimai watched his younger self pad his head with a piece of cloth then lift the bundle of firewood to take home.
As Afam paced his way out of the bush he watched the old man closely. For a moment Esimai thought the young man knew the truth. But it was only Esimai’s mind believing a lie just because he wanted it to be true. Esimai waited until Afam was almost twenty paces away then he called.
‘Afam nwa Onu!’
Afam knew that for someone to call him ‘Afam son of Onu,’ the person knew more than a few things about him, or they had something important to tell him. He stopped and turned around to see the old man approaching with his bicycle. Does he know about us? That was the question in Afam’s head. Could this quiet palm-wine tapper know about his late night engagements? Afam approached the man with a tighter grip on the machete. He made up his mind to commit murder right there in the bush if the wine tapper was going to pose a threat. As Afam approached him his heart thumped with the vein at the side of his head throbbing with every pulse. Swallow, breathe, calm, those were the words Afam told himself to gain some self-control.
Esimai waited until Afam was just a pace away and then he studied his son even closer. Esimai noticed the grip on the machete and it brought a smile to his face. Like father, like son. Even if he died today, he’d die knowing that his son was a man, a warrior. Esimai stared deeply into Afam’s eyes and with a life full of experience, he saw a lot. There were more than a few things in Afam’s eyes but what really stood out was fear. Esimai could tell that his son was covered in fear for something he had seen or done. Afam watched the old man smile to expose his horrible teeth. He tried to smile back but he couldn’t manage it. His heart thumped harder and his fear escalated. Was this the life he was going to live forever? Was he always going to be afraid and watching his back? Was this the future with Adaobi? A life of fear, unknowns, danger.
‘Afam Udemba, I knew your father.’ Esimai said. He really wanted to tell his son the whole truth but he couldn’t bring himself to do that. It was at this point that Esimai realised that he hadn’t changed a lot from the man he was before he ran away. He was still afraid of unknown outcomes. He did not know what changes telling Afam the truth was going to make to both their lives and that uncertainty frightened him.
Afam watched the frail palm-wine tapper with curiosity. Was he telling the truth? And if he was, why hadn’t he come forward with this a long time ago? But none of that mattered too much right now. Afam looked at the man closely for recognition; no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t put a name to the face. He wanted to say something, anything, but no words came even close to his lips. He could barely make out a complete sentence in his mind. For so many years he had wondered who his father was even though he’d never gone out of his way to find out. Now that the answer was at his feet he found he was somewhat afraid of knowing. But there were some fears he knew he could face with a bit of courage; this was one of them. Afam braced himself to be demystified.
The wine tapper started by asking Afam to walk with him deeper into the woods. Esimai walked in front, Afam following closely behind. As they both walked, Afam wondered who this man really was and why he was coming now. When Esimai believed they were deep enough in the woods to be alone, he stopped and sat under the shade of a tree where they were hidden.
Afam found a spot on the ground and sat down next to him. He was experiencing mixed emotions he could not explain. He watched the wine tapper with infinite curiosity. Esimai gazed into empty space, trying to gather what exactly he was going to tell his son, and what he was going to do after that. Would he still wander the village as the wine tapper? Surely Onu would tell her son the truth now that he was old enough to know and with his father nearby, he wouldn’t have to leave her to find him. Esimai wasn’t sure if he wanted to be a parent right now. He had been away for so long. He felt like he had already forsaken the right to be Afam’s father. Afam’s life was a better place without him in it.
After a series of thoughts Esimai decided to tell Afam the story and disappear afterwards. He told Afam his life story in the third person. Afam wondered how the wine tapper knew so much about his father but did not interrupt the story. Esimai told him about the trips through villages, about the journeys at night. He told him every single detail apart from the truth that the person he was talking about was himself.
Esimai ended the story by telling Afam that his father died in his sleep in another village. It was his dying wish that this story be told to him so that he would learn whose son he was. Afam could hardly believe the entire story. If his father was Esimai, the great warrior, his mother would have told him. Or would she? It was hard to tell. Was this why his mother cried at night? Was this the secret that shaped her life into what it was? It was hard to comprehend, hard to believe, but there was something about the wine tapper and the way he told the story that made it come across as nothing but the truth.
The two sat in absolute silence for almost thirty breaths. Birds whistled in the trees and you could hear the distant sound of an axe chopping into trees. Afam finally took a deep breath and asked the question that troubled him the most,
‘How do you know of all these things about my father?’
Esimai was expecting that question and he did have a planned answer. Certainly a man on the run like Esimai wasn’t going to send messages about his life story. Any interception was going to give away his location.
‘I, too, was on the run from my village. I travelled with your father, we ate and slept together.’ Esimai smiled, ‘He told me about your mother and asked me to tell her that he loved her if I ever met her. I guess you could call us good friends. He said if you were anything like him then you would be a real man, a warrior.’
Afam was surprised to know his father thought about him. All his life he had the impression that his father was a coward who ran away instead of facing banishment for sleeping with an osu. He believed the man had abandoned his mother and he hated him for it. Now that he had an insight into the life and times of the desperate man his father was, he couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. Afam couldn’t even imagine what his father’s life was like. Always on the road, always on the run, always in hiding. A life full of uncertainly, doubt, fear. A life with one eye in front, the other over your shoulder, sleeping with one eye shut.
As these thoughts filled Afam’s mind he realised how close he was to living the same life. If his romance with Adaobi was discovered, more or less he would have to live his father’s life. He imagined the pain Esimai must have been through, an innocent man being hunted for murder. Afam did not even wish this on his enemy.