Collins Uzuegbu 1 year ago
@The Traveller 10 min read Write a comment #short-stories

The Palm Wine Tapper

The last speech of a man on trial in a court...I once knew a woman who was a palm wine tapper- that was how I chose to start my speech.

I wanted to be able to take a long look at the words after the courtroom announcer would have asked me if I had anything else to say to the court and then read out the words to reinvigorate myself for one final push. It was what I chose to do. My legs shook as the weight of my body shifted from the chair on which I had sat all day long to my legs. I looked from the crumpled paper in my quivering palm to the unsmiling faces which stared back at me. It was a case of a man versus the whole world, and this world was very certain of its case; they wanted my head, all of them who had one reason or the other to believe I had murdered my wife. These faces were not entirely unfamiliar to me.

To my right, behind the row of tired-looking cameramen, were my children. My eldest son sat with his wife, who was dressed as the wife of a governor, her gaze met mine, and she looked away; my second and last sons stared at me as well, this wrinkled old man that they were certain had murdered their mother with cold, indifferent eyes. I do not blame them one bit for when one chooses to live his life with a metal fist; it is not strange then when he is accused of murder or other acts of violence. I move my eyes from their stares and look at the paper which I had unwrapped; my eyes peruse the first words, and I feel my strength build. I once knew a woman who was a palm wine tapper. It was 1979, and I had just been posted to serve in a remote village in Imo state; the name beats me now, but at that time, when I was still young and my hearing was not gone, I could have memorized the name and still recalled it with ease. 

The first time I saw this woman, she was barely twenty; I was seated in one of those mammy wagons, the ones with an open back and with benches as seats. We had just been posted to this remote village, and you have to remember that this was just a few years after the war, and we were actually the first-ever batch of male youth corps from the west to be posted to a village in the east. So we were somewhat apprehensive, some people were scared, and at one time, someone said to the driver, “if you see anything wrong, just turn around and let’s go back.” And I remember thinking to myself, “we are surrounded by acres of a bush; if someone were to jump out of the bush and fire a weapon, we would be dead even before the driver managed to reverse the lorry. Many times we chided the poor, weary driver for not driving fast enough. Throughout the trip, I had premonitions of a wrappa-clad youth, armed with a rifle and a wicked smile, jumping out of the bush and firing directly at me. Luckily, however, nobody jumped out of the bush and attempted to kill us; what happened towards the end of the trip, however, was one of the most beautiful things that could ever happen to a young man. 

We had just ascended another one of these small hills that had become increasingly constant as we neared the village, the weather was hot and dry at the same time, and there were lots of dust clouds in the air. In fact, the trip that had earlier seen every one of us amazed at the sights of the tall mahogany trees and the dust-covered whistling pines that were rolling past as our old rickety mammy wagon moved was now making us quite nervy. But that was when we saw them; this group of ladies on the slope of the hill we were just descending. Some sat on old Raleigh bicycles and had this band of twined ropes about their shoulders; others carried clay pots, which surprisingly balanced effortlessly on their heads. Even the fast rhythmic sway of their waists seemed not to affect the balance of the pots. The whole thing was an eye feast. We all stared, love-struck youth corpers -at this wonderful sight, and we definitely had every reason to stare; most of us like me had been born and bred in cities, and this thing from the magical pots to the twines and women on bicycles were new to us. As the lorry rolled closer, every man was glued to one side of the lorry, and as a result, this new weight forced the lorry to begin tipping dangerously to one side. I remember the driver who had been rather mute up until that point, screaming sokale wa, meaning Come down!

About five or six of us jumped down instantly and began walking ahead of the lorry. Those few paces we took to set us up for one of the most incredible acts of courtship we had ever done in our lives. As I walked- both eyes at odd angles to each other, one on the road and the other on the Waists of these women- the thoughts of what to say to one of them were running rings in my head. In the end, I settled on the oldest and perhaps most logical. I walked up to the last one in the group and, while speaking in the sweetest tone my voice could muster, also gesticulated that I was in dire need of water. It worked; the girl smiled and pointed to the damsel in the lead. What I had just done shook the chains off my colleagues, and soon, every one of them on the road quickened their pace to catch up. As for my humble self, I walked to the girl in the lead, who rode on the Raleigh bicycle and had this twine of ropes about her shoulder, and spoke the first of the millions of words we would speak to one another. My olanma.The most beautiful woman I had ever set my eyes on. 

This determined, light-skinned woman with her ishi owu and sweat-beaded face would become my partner for life. It did not begin with a smile or a blush. My would-be wife hissed and squeezed her mouth at first sight of me. But as she would tell me, days later and many more times during our married life, she did not find me revolting as I had thought at that time. It was her way, and she was happy that I talked to her. In the weeks that followed from the day I met her, I came to know a woman of good values and patience. She taught me how to knead maize and, more especially, how to position myself in front of a palm wine tree, fasten the climbing rope firmly around my waist, and put one foot after the other on the trunk of a palm tree. I did not leave when my colleagues left after the end of our service; there was absolutely no way I could have left. Not even the fifteen threat-laden letters from my father could persuade me to leave my love.

I married her in 1982, and we moved to Lagos exactly three years after we met. There were difficulties in our marriage before, and after we left her village, I had to find a job and a place to lay our heads in the city, and there was her mother, who was not exactly open to allowing her last remaining child to move off with a youth corper from the city- her father had died in the war. We did pull through, however, because we were loved, believed, and had trust in each other. My wife died last week in our home in Lagos. She died in her sleep at the age of sixty-nine. It was a beautiful marriage with the ups and downs that every marriage experiences; we have three beautiful children, and even now, as I read this in front of you all and also to their hearing, my very children want me imprisoned. I want it known that I loved my wife, and I would never do anything to harm her, let alone murder her. 

My words may be of inconsequential value at this stage in this trial, but I want it known in print that I did not murder my wife. You do not kill the person you have loved for most of your life, and certainly not when you are this old and wrinkled. My body which had been shaking miserably since the trial began, had now stopped.

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