Afam stood up after the wine tapper had finished. His mind was still filled with questions about his father. Now that he knew the man’s story, he wanted to know the man. He wanted to know other things his father said about him. He wanted to know what ruled his father’s life. Was he eternally locked in sorrow and worries like his mother? Did he live every day regretting ever laying his eyes on Onu? Did he talk in his sleep? Did he even sleep at all? And if he slept, did he have dreams or nightmares? There were so many questions Afam wanted to ask, but he knew that the wine tapper wanted to be off now. He could tell the moment the man rose to his feet.
Afam figured they were going to cross paths again and then he would ask the man more questions. They both looked at each other for a few breaths, speaking without words. In that silence they agreed that the words they had shared would remain between them and the trees and birds that cared to listen.
The fact that this man was close to Afam’s father changed so many things. Afam felt welcome in the wine tapper’s presence. He wanted the wine tapper to stay, but he knew that was not possible. Afam wore a mask over his emotions and desires as they parted ways. Even though he did not realize it, he was trying to live up to his father’s expectation. As a man he could not show any form of emotional weakness. If Afam had his way he would have invited the wine tapper to spend the night with them. The feeling of speaking to another man that appreciated him and his heritage was an experience he wished to relive.
The most difficult part was not looking back at the wine tapper as he walked away from him. What Afam did not know was that the wine tapper never took his eyes off him as he wheeled his bicycle away. Secretly Esimai wished Afam would turn around to see him. He believed his son would know the truth if he caught his eyes watching him. Afam did not as much as steal a quick glance.
He gathered the chopped wood and placed it on his head. Afam walked home with so much on his mind he did not even realize he carried any load. He tried to pick out memories of Esimai. He remembered telling his mother that he would grow up to be as strong as the warrior. Was he just speaking like every little boy that admired the huge muscles on Esimai, or was it some father and child connection that caused him to say that? Afam was digging deeper into his mind and he was remembering Esimai passing their house. He remembered how he came out of the hut just to get a look at the warrior. He remembered how sometimes Esimai would smile at him, and how sometimes he would look grieved. Afam thought he was grieving for fallen Aboh warriors, now he saw it differently. Once in his sleep as a small boy he thought he heard a man talking with his mother while he slept. Could it be that Esimai was in their hut once upon a night? Was that the night Aham claimed his wife was kidnapped?
He even remembered the day Esimai asked him about his mother as he walked past their hut. Afam had been so startled that the warrior would even speak to him, in his excitement he couldn’t make anything of it. And even if he wasn’t crazy with excitement, he was too young to see past his nose at the time. He could never forget the look on his mother’s face when he told her Esimai asked after her. It was perpetual shock, but his mother got herself together very quickly. Then he believed she was only as surprised as he was; now he knew better.
As Afam looked deeper into the past he sensed bad feelings covering his mind. Why had his mother kept this from him for all these years? He was the only person in the world that cared about her life, her only friend, her only child, but yet she held such a secret from him. Afam felt it was his right to know; after all it had something to do with him, it had everything to do with him. If not for her carelessness he would never have been born into this life of isolation. He would not have to hunt alone; he would have friends. He would have a real life. There were two sides to it, he would either not exist, or he would exist as a free man. In the state of mind he found himself in now Afam was willing to sacrifice his existence rather than being osu. Times like these made him wish he were capable of taking his own life. His fear of death and the afterlife would not let him dare to try, even if he suffered every day of his life.
Afam dwelled on this anger and it only made him angrier with his mother. All these years he never complained, never openly blamed her. And what did he get in return? Nothing. Afam knew he should not be thinking like this about his mother. She was the only real thing in his life. His love for Adaboi was real, but life was not being fair to him and there was nothing he could do to change things. After all was said and done, his life was in that bamboo-fenced hut with Onu. Afam knew all of that, but he could not pour water over this fire that now burned in his heart. In the corner of his mind he knew that he too was guilty of keeping secrets. Afam was sure his mother knew he was outside the hut during the most unholy hours, but he wasn’t sure she knew whom exactly he was seeing. Perhaps like his mother, Afam did not realize that he, too, said a lot of things in his sleep.
When Afam got home his mother was still cooking so he knew she had taken a break at some point. Perhaps the wine tapper paid her a visit as well. Afam tried to imagine how his mother would have felt as the story of her lover unfolded. He studied her face closely, hoping to read her emotions. She too absorbed in her cooking to notice his presence. Even though Onu knew Esimai’s sudden appearance wasn’t going to change a thing in her life, she was happy to know he was alive. She felt safer just knowing he was in Aboh with her. For the first time in so many years, Onu did not wear a mask over her emotions. Afam noticed how easy and relaxed his mother was. He had never seen her like this before.
As Afam came closer he wondered what exactly it was that his mother was happy about. Esimai was dead, wasn’t he? So why did she look like her world was now complete and perfect? Afam wondered if there was something the wine tapper hadn’t said to him, maybe a secret between the wine tapper, his mother, and his dead father. It was at this moment that he realized the wine tapper might have been lying about Esimai’s death. How convenient to say Esimai died in his sleep. For a brief moment Afam believed that somewhere in the world his father was still living and breathing. The mere thought of this made him feel like leaving everything in Aboh behind in search of Esimai. He told himself it was only his mind believing what it truly longed for, trying to forge truths out of nothing.
Onu noticed Afam when he was only five paces away and realized how lost in thought she was. She should have heard him coming. She should have raised her head to see him before he was this close. But she hadn’t done any of that. She was lost in her own mind, totally wrapped in the sudden appearance of a man she thought was gone forever. Onu travelled back in time to the good old days before she was snatched from the river bank. She wasn’t an osu then, her life was normal and lovely. She remembered how Esimai used to walk her down the river when she wanted to fetch water very early. He used to help her carry the water, even though in Aboh it wasn’t a man’s place to do so. She remembered how he tasted her food and told her it was the most delicious thing in all of Aboh. Then she went to the river without him and that morning her life was changed in a way that she would have never imagined. Just that morning everything she knew to be life was instantly distorted beyond repair. She became less than a stranger in her own village.
After that morning she was sure to lose Esimai, but even with all the difficulties surrounding her life he still wanted to be a part of it. So many risks he took to make her life have a sense of normality, to make her feel like the world wasn’t against her when it undeniably was. During the most trying times of her life when she had often contemplated taking her own life, it was Esimai that stopped her. He never saw her tying knots to hang herself, but she had done that more than once. Every time she wore the knotted ropes around her neck she saw his face and she imagined his feelings. Onu couldn’t get herself to leave Esimai in the world, not after all he had been through for her. Sometimes she complained to him that she was slowing him down. She told him he deserved a clean woman that he could marry and have children with. Esimai always warned her against thinking such things. He told her that she was the only person in his life who mattered and he wanted no one else but her. Onu had every reason in the world to grin for the rest of her life now that she knew Esimai was nearby.
Afam dropped the bundle of dry wood on the floor and walked into the hut without a word to his mother. Onu knew he was hungry before he left, but it wasn’t in Afam’s nature to act differently when hungry. She noticed the position of the sun and her shadow to realize it took him longer than usual to get their wood. Esimai, Afam must have met Esimai. Onu was too consumed by her joy to realize what changes Afam meeting Esimai was going to make in his life. For so many years he knew next to nothing about his father, then one day a man comes along to tell him everything. Onu was being unfair to Afam imagining that he was going to take it all in at once. She called out his name but he didn’t as much as glance in her direction.
In all the years Onu had known her son, which was as long as he had existed, he had never been angry with her. Onu was trying to think of what exactly her son was angry about. What exactly had Esimai told him? Onu swept the surroundings with her eyes, wishing she would find Esimai somewhere. He was nowhere to be found. Suddenly Onu felt her joy disappear and grief and sorrow replacing it almost immediately. It was the grief of loss. Even though no one had said anything to her, she knew Esimai was gone, and this time there was a feeling of finality to it. That little hope of his reappearance she always had shriveled to absolute emptiness. She felt sadness cover her and she wondered if Esimai’s coming was a blessing or a curse.
Onu managed to finish the cooking because there wasn’t much left to do. She dished up Afam’s food, wondering what she was going to say to him to lessen his anger. Now she was thinking about how she kept everything about Esimai a secret from him. At first she told herself that Afam was too young to be told the truth. But when he grew into a man and that excuse was exhausted, she still couldn’t bring herself to tell him the story. She convinced herself it was for his own good. Onu supported this belief by telling herself that Afam would end up setting off on a never-ending journey in search of his father. She told herself that she was saving him from a life of constant search. She was saving him a lot of trouble. But in Onu’s heart of hearts she knew from the very start that she kept the truth from her son because she was afraid of losing him. It wasn’t the fact that he might wander the world forever that she feared. It was the thought of his leaving her. Afam was the only thing in her world that made sense. The thought of his leaving her filled her with more fear than she could imagine. Life without Afam for Onu was no life at all. There was no extent to how much she would miss his presence. She doubted if she could survive without him. It had nothing to do with the food or firewood he provided. The dibia would see to it that Onu was fed as long as she lived. She was property of an alusi. Her wellbeing was the dibia’s duty as servant to the alusi. What Onu needed from Afam was company. If he were to be removed from her life she would be in absolute isolation. The entire hut would echo with the deafening sound of silence that would serve as a constant reminder of her seclusion. In Onu’s fear of loneliness she denied her son the knowledge of his father. She was beginning to see the selfishness of her ways and it pained her that she had failed to see it before now.
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