PART TWENTY-ONE (II)
Edited by: Darlene Jones
“Maybe I’ll have to sit over there and wait.”
An exhausted Dubem yawned, before pointing to a nearby tree with fat trunk and leafless branches etched against the sky. He turned around just in time to see Afoma tilt her head slightly. She placed her hands on her hips and permitted herself an ironic smile. Her eyes, round and black, continued to regard him.
She giggled. Shook her head vigorously like a little child refusing to part from its mother’s side. Before he could repeat his question, she briskly turned around and headed for the cleared fields, the location of the other servants.
Curious, Dubem carefully studied his sweaty body, the foliage-covered earth around him. Yet he couldn’t pinpoint the source of Afoma’s sudden amusement. The girl, a fellow servant in his master’s house, didn’t miss a chance to play tricks on him. She had been playful around him right from an early age. Learning they both were about the same age had been influential. Or was he missing something in her momentary excitement?
At the foot of the tree he dropped his machete and sat down. He rested his back against the rough trunk and closed his eyes. Afoma, he thought, could be beautiful in a different life. She had high cheekbones and long lashes. Her body was thin, her breasts—exposed, considering her lowly status—were small but sufficiently round. The shred of goat skin wrapped around her waist didn’t do much to conceal the hillocks of her bottom when she walked.
She once, and secretly too, had her coal-black hair braided and decorated with brightly coloured beads—all of which were Okuoba’s. This had given her look a pleasant richness. But for fear of what would happen if she was caught, she’d to undo it almost immediately and had never repeated the act ever since.
“Here …” a soft kick to Dubem’s ankle made him open his eyes. He moved slightly, so Afoma could sit beside him.
“And what’s that?”
“See for yourself.”
Slowly he unwrapped the dried banana leaves placed before him. “Mmm, someone was thoughtful enough to ensure that I didn’t go through the next phase of clearing on an empty stomach.” His happy mood soon nosedived into a pit of concern. “How did you girls get the yam tuber? Wait … you didn’t steal it from one of our master’s barns, did you?”
Afoma shrugged. Faced forward. It didn’t take long before her face began twitching. When she turned to Dubem, her eyelids fluttered madly. But she avoided making eye contact with him.
“So it’s true?”
“No—I mean …” Afoma briefly looked remorseful, then she went on the defensive: “Just two tubers. Me and two of the girls; we snuck into one of the barns last night. Look,” she gave Dubem’s wrist a gentle squeeze, “every day we have to work hard to prove ourselves, to prove we deserve the food we eat, the roofs over our heads. It’s not new that we have to clear these fields in readiness for the rainy season. We’re the ones to do the planting. Do the harvesting. Store up tubers in those barns once again. Those barns are a testimony to our sweat. We deserve enough, just as our master and his family.”
Dubem couldn’t decide if he should agree with Afoma, caution her, or simply enjoy the food before him. Besides, he was hungry.
“See,” she led his hand to a big slice of freshly roasted yam already dipped in palm oil, “why don’t you just eat and satisfy your hunger.”
As he lifted the slice a few inches from the wrap, her hand languidly moved over to the front of his bare thigh. Then in a voice, soft, and several decibels lower, she said, “I remember one of those days when we all had to work in Nnaanyi’s largest farm—the day when you lifted me up in your arms. I swear you took me by surprise and together we spun until we …”
Already hooked by her sensual touch, Dubem’s eyes followed the slow movement of her index finger, the way it snaked up his abs, leaving a trail of fire in its wake, and throwing his heartbeat into a frenzy.
“You’re yet to respond to what I said.”
He forced down a swallow. “I … em … Actually what did you say?”
A gratified smile appeared on her face as she inched closer. “I know this may sound silly. Almost impossible. But I’ve been thinking about a new life. A life away from here. I want us to buy our freedom, or maybe escape.”
The words left Dubem perplexed. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because …” her hand glided down, teasing, daring to crawl underneath his loincloth. “I want you. I want a new life with you. To bear you many sons and dau—”
“No!” Dubem pulled her hand away. “Please … Just stop …”
Quickly, Afoma got to her feet, a frenzied look in her eyes. The first thought that came to Dubem was that she felt unwanted and afraid. But when he followed the direction of her gaze, he saw Okuoba approaching with two servant girls from the west. It was hard to tell if his master’s daughter had been watching them, but his instinct was to rise and expect the worst.
“We should hide the food wrap,” Afoma said, her voice constrained by fear.
Dubem shook his head.
“No? What are we going to say—you know we are supposed to have our lunch only when we return? Above all, Okuoba is no fool.”
Not a word slipped past Dubem’s lips. Rather he contemplated the possible consequences of Afoma’s action. He didn’t want her to be punished—he knew he wouldn’t be able to bear it. He didn’t want to be punished either—he’d never given his master a cause to do so, despite the old man’s toughness and little regard for him. He looked down at the wrap; hiding it could infuriate his master’s daughter even more.
“Are you through clearing the third farm?” Okuoba asked, closing the gap to within a few feet.
Afoma clasped her hands behind her. She could not help but cast a worried sideways glance at the food wrap the secret meal. “I … we …we’re about to fi—”
“How did that get here?” Okuoba pointed at the wrap. She looked at both servants with wide-eyed surprise.
Dubem glanced at Afoma; her fear-stricken face begged for a way out. Before she could speak up, he said with boldness, “I’m the one responsible.”
The servants behind Okuoba gasped, placed their hands over their mouths. She motioned Afoma to join them. Then said, “Leave us.”
When the trio were out of earshot, her face fell and she let out a sigh. She began twiddling with the bead around her neck. “Tell me you didn’t do it. Tell me you aren’t the one who has been stealing from our barns and animal farm lately.” She gazed up at him, her eyes misted over. “Please …”
Pain and disappointment tainted the beauty before Dubem. He had never seen his master’s daughter in such a sad state. He couldn’t believe she would stand before him and reveal such deep sincere emotion; her reaction felt like a thousand spears piercing his heart.
If only she would understand …
He wanted to tell her the truth.
But he couldn’t. He didn’t say a word.
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