The Rich Man and the Palm Wine Tapper

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Throughout the night and into the early morning the chubby rich man dreamed of fresh palm wine. In his sleep, he heard the peculiar grating sound – nails mixed with aluminum in a tool box – made as the palm wine tapper rode his bicycle en route to the palm trees.

Deep in sleep he dreamed of how, when he intercepted the wine tapper on his way to the palm tree, he would instruct him to deliver a fresh pot of palm wine, which the tapper was guaranteed to have by the time he came back.

Soon afterwards a flash of realism interrupted his optimism. What if the palm wine tapper had committed the morning’s fresh palm wine to another drinker?

Over his closed eyes a scornful smile emerged to greet a witty thought: How society tends to favor the words of the rich over those of the poor, a phenomenon which to his suspicious mind makes the poor less vocal but more thoughtful.

Ferdinand was the wine tapper’s name, yet everybody in the village, adults and children alike, called him Otenkwu, ‘the man who taps the palm tree.’

On a hunch of impending loss, the prospect of fresh palm wine slipping away – a loss known only to palm wine lovers – the rich man jerked up from the bed. Because the village air had not arrived that night, he had been sleeping with no shirt. He tied a double folded wrapper around his waist, over his boxers, groped with his toes to find his slippers and then went out the door, into the front yard.

The last rooster was crowing as he reached the double iron gates guarding the compound. He pulled the right side open and walked a pace further, standing beside the dirt road. His eyes first looked down the road in search of the wine tapper. If the tapper had gone past his house, he must have turned the corner, shielded by other village buildings erected everywhere around the winding narrow path.

Though the rich man was chubby, he believed he could run if the need arose. He could run down the road, up to a reasonable distance, to search for the wine tapper. On the other hand, he could wait, hoping the wine tapper was running late and was yet to reach his house. The chubby rich man thought as he waited.

What if Ferdinand took another path, or had walked through the bush, not merely to tap other palm trees but to avoid men like him who want palm wine ordered before the tappers make it safely to the ground? ‘Quite a few of them,’ mused the chubby man, ‘some of the finest wine tappers have fallen to their death, distracted while thinking how to appease rich village drunks. Is the love of palm wine the root of all evil?’

Devoid of immediate action, the rich man untied his wrapper and tied it back, now only slightly tighter, with a knot on the right side of the waist. After that he found his pot belly and gave the dumb fat a squeeze.

The pain of the squeeze provoked more soul-searching. If the tapper had ridden past the house, he would have heard, even in his sleep, the sound of his bicycle.

There is a possibility, thought the chubby rich man, that a bicycle that made such a sound was sick and likely to break down at any time, and Ferdinand might not have saved enough to afford a repair. So maybe he had resorted to shortcuts, through the bush path.

Lost in thought and near to desperation, the chubby man did not realize when the tapper pulled close to him and set both feet on the ground. He was a wiry man with a narrow chest, a pair of long sticks for legs, and a large head into which were sunk two deeply-set eyes.

Taken aback at his arrival, the rich man found his pot belly and again squeezed a wall of solid dumb fat.

‘What are you doing in the middle of the road at this hour; don’t those eyes of yours ever sleep?’

‘What are you doing riding your bicycle before the last rooster crows; don’t you ever rest?’

The tapper lifted his foot from the ground to the pedal, and the rich man quickly stretched an arm to restrain the left bicycle handle.

‘What troubles your soul so early in the morning?’ the tapper asked.

‘A calabash of palm wine, as it is, fresh from the palm tree.’

‘You don’t have any space left to pour the palm wine,’ said the wine tapper as he glanced at a pregnant belly. ‘You store all your riches in your belly, don’t you?’

It wasn’t the first time the chubby man had heard comments about his girth, and he was ready for a response.

‘You poor squirrel, when are you going to enjoy the sweat of your labor? Stop disturbing the neighborhood with that squeaking bicycle of yours. Look at you, wasted and wiry!’

Fighting before climbing a palm tree is always a bad omen, and Ferdinand was quick to stop an escalation. He pried the bicycle handle away from the rich man’s grip and actually began to pedal, to get away.

‘Don’t forget,’ cried the rich man. ‘My fresh calabash of palm wine!’

‘Vultures are circling overhead,’ the palm wine tapper responded, ‘waiting on you to either throw up or expel the contents of your belly.’

‘May you fall head first from the palm tree!’ screamed the fat man as he walked back to his house.

Later that morning, just before the sun had begun to reach the village, at a makeshift breakfast table in a backyard, six roasted yams were set on a flat plate. Beside the yams was a worn-out white metal bowl which contained a mixture of pepper, palm oil and salt.

In a low wooden chair beside the breakfast table, the rich man sat crouched over the roasted yams. He still wore his folded wrapper. As he shifted his trunk sideways, the chair squeaked like a dead tree falling.

A yard away, the servant who set up the breakfast stood like a statue ready to take more orders.

‘Palm wine – Ferdinand?’ The rich man remembered, not knowing if the words came out of his lips. ‘Did the palm wine get here yet? Has Ferdinand got back?’ he began to fume at the servant.

‘Sir… ‘ the servant said, and then hesitated for a few seconds while he listened to the various village sounds.

Stretching out his right ear like a rubber band, he declared, ‘I hear the bicycle of the man who taps the palm tree.’

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