The cock crowed again, and to some it might have sounded a tad impatient – as if warning that this was the last time it would sound its summon. Some compounds were already stirring to life, getting ready for yet another monotonous day in the village. As kerosene lanterns were lit, the shadows faded and menacing shapes of the night melted into the walls.
A looming figure stood over Amaka as she slept soundly. The woman watched as the girl’s slight body rose gently before dipping on an exhalation. She yanked off her thin bedcover and shook Amaka awake. As Amaka’s eyes slowly opened, she let out a yawn as she glanced around in confusion.
“You’re still sleeping?” her aunt shouted. “Come on, get up!” Amaka’s gaze rested on her aunt as the older woman turned and marched out of her room. “Lazy girl,” she angrily hissed as she left.
Amaka knew that Aunt Onyeka would go back to bed until sunrise. When she finally woke up, she would rouse her spoiled son Chimdi, to prepare him for school. Blinking rapidly to awaken, Amaka stretched and after rolling up her mat and bedsheet, she stepped outside their modest bungalow. As usual, she would sweep the compound with a raffia broom as the final remnants of the night gave way to the dawn. By the time she was through, it would be daylight when she started a small fire in the outdoor kitchen to prepare breakfast. After peeling a tuber of yam and setting the pieces in boiling water to cook, she would take an iron bucket to the community borehole.
Today was no different and she set off to the borehole to fetch water. As she trudged along the muddy footpath, her thoughts were interrupted by shouts.
She turned and watched her classmate – Mercy – rushing towards her. She was also clutching a large bucket. Amaka squealed at the sight of her best friend and they chatted eagerly as they made their way to the water well together. Every so often, they would pause their chatter to respectfully greet passing elders from the village. After filling their buckets with water, they heaved them onto their heads and retraced their steps back to their homes.
“Promotion exams are starting in a few weeks’ time and I don’t even know where to start,” Mercy sighed, reminding Amaka about the upcoming exams. They used to sit next to each other in class, and they would revise during lunch time – particularly if it was exam season. “I wish you were still in school. You explained things so much better than that Mr. Francis.”
“Mr. Francis?” Amaka snorted, remembering her former math teacher. Although she missed school – she was glad to be away from him. She remembered the number of times she would be deep in study during his lesson – only to glance up and catch him staring at her.
“Do you think you’ll ever come back?” Mercy watched her friend sympathetically.
“You’re talking as if you don’t already know,” Amaka chuckled bitterly. “That witch won’t spend a single kobo on anything besides herself and Chimdi.”
Amaka’s father had died just five months ago, and her education ended as suddenly as the strange illness which had rapidly engulfed his body and killed him. Her paternal uncles, both businessmen in Kaduna, had swept into the village to make arrangements for his burial. Their next concern was their late brother’s property. His farm was sold to the highest bidder and a caretaker was assigned to the house after his valuables had been cleared.
With the title deed to his house and compound safely transferred, Amaka’s uncles left – but not before foisting her onto her reluctant aunt, promising to send money for her education. Weeks passed and she heard nothing from her uncles or aunt, who plainly hated her. The deadline to pay for her school fees came and went – and after being kicked out of school, Amaka finally mustered up the courage to ask her aunt about the promised funds.
“If they had sent anything, don’t you think I would have told you?” the woman snapped. That was the last time anything was mentioned about her education. After getting suspended from school, her chores at home grew. Although she was at first asked to fetch water – her aunt gradually made her cook, clean and look after the home when she and her son were away. As the days went on, Amaka’s dream of attending university faded like the print on her aunt’s dresses.
As Amaka sullenly waved her friend goodbye and approached their compound, she saw her aunt Onyeka standing alert, arms akimbo. “You left the yam boiling in that water!” she shouted. “Did I tell you that I wanted to eat pottage? Stupid girl. Are you capable of understanding simple instructions?”
Ignoring Chimdi who was grinning as he stood a few feet away from his mother, Amaka shuffled past her aunt and emptied the bucket into a huge plastic container. She went to the kitchen and began pounding onions, tomatoes and pepper, mixing it to the palm oil and crayfish. The aroma from the sauce rode lightly on the morning air but she ignored the moisture it coaxed from her tongue. As usual she would eat yesterday’s leftovers after she finished preparing this meal.
Though nightmarish, the last five months had given her an inkling as to what motivated her aunt: jealousy towards her sister, Amaka’s mother, who had married first. Her conclusions weren’t far off the mark. Unknown to anyone, when Onyeka had first laid eyes on Ikenna, Amaka’s father, her body burned for him. Ignoring her, he took a liking to her sister, Chinyere. Onyeka thought her chance had finally arrived when Chinyere died days after giving birth to Amaka, and she had made every effort to worm her way into the widower’s heart. She once snuck into his quarters and boldly offered herself, but to no avail.
Soon after, she’d left for the capital to learn dressmaking. She returned seven years later with a swollen belly and a bogus ring. She claimed that she had been happily married in the city before the father of her unborn child passed away, yet most suspected that she had probably had a fling with a man who later abandoned her. Undaunted, Onyeka had stuck to her story of being a widow. She bore her son under her father’s roof and remained there after his death, sewing for a living.
That afternoon when Amaka returned from washing clothes at the borehole, she was surprised to see a sleek silver Mercedes parked outside her aunt’s compound. She surreptitiously peeked into the car’s interior. She had no idea that her aunt knew anyone so wealthy and fueled by curiosity she went through the main room on the pretext of retrieving something. As she greeted the visitor, she noticed the bottles of wine he’d brought along as gifts.
After their evening meal, Aunty Onyeka called Amaka to her bedroom. “The man you saw today is Mr. Ogbonna, a very rich businessman from Lagos.” Amaka smothered a yawn as she listened to her aunt. It was late and today had been particularly hot, so she was keen to get to sleep early. “He saw you at Christmas, but because your father had just died, he decided to wait a few months. He wants to marry you.”
Amaka grew alert as she looked at her aunt in horror. “I am not ready for that!”
“You’re almost seventeen,” her aunt retorted calmly. “You are the same age at which your mother got married.”
“But… I want to go to school.”
“Mr. Ogbonna wants that, too. He says he will pay your way through school until you graduate. In fact, he has enough money to even send you to study abroad.” There was a tinge of envy in her voice, which was lost on Amaka.
“No…” Amaka shook her head vehemently. “I can’t. He is too old.” She remembered Mr. Ogbonna’s receding hairline, his bulbous nose and his large belly as he sprawled on her aunt’s old sofa.
“Shut up!” her aunt hissed. “I didn’t ask for your opinion. You don’t want to marry him? No problem. But whatever you decide, just know that you must leave my house. I don’t have enough money to support three people.”
As she lay on her mat, bitter tears coursed down Amaka’s cheeks. Was she to be sold to a man old enough to be her father? And a sale it would be because she’d glimpsed the avarice in her aunt’s eyes. Onyeka was shrewd and she would collect the bride price.
Amaka wanted to experience what she read about in foreign novels: “falling in love” with someone young and dashing who would do everything in his power to give her the world… Whatever that meant. She knew her aunt would have hooted with laughter had she dared mention it. Even her father, though he’d encouraged her reading, had called the love stories “unrealistic”.
Amaka wiped her face as she lay on her back and stared at the dark ceiling. What choices did she have? She had no money and no real skills. Would life with Mr. Ogbonna – her new suitor – be better than her current life with Aunt Onyeka? She thought about her aunt’s promise that she may study abroad in exchange for being his wife. She tried to imagine herself in a university abroad, yet she shivered at the thought of that old man’s hands on her. Was she prepared to pay the sacrifice that came with being a wife, in exchange for this?
Something her father used to say came to mind: “Life is like the bitter leaf. If you want the good out of it, you must also be prepared for the bad.” Closing her eyes tightly shut, she took deep breaths to calm herself and prayed for sleep.
Mercy’s face split into a huge smile on seeing Amaka. Her braids were pulled up into a large bun and her eyes were dark from the eyeliner she had applied. A colorful Ankara dress hugged her petite frame and she looked even prettier than Amaka remembered.
“You’re on time!” Amaka clasped her hands gleefully. Maybe it was a New Year’s resolution her friend was keeping because she didn’t remember her being punctual for anything before.
“I was too eager,” she replied as she leaned in for a hug. “My God, Amaka. You’re living in paradise!”
With a resigned sigh Amaka stepped aside as Mercy walked through the mansion’s large mahogany doors. After pushing the door closed, she turned to watch Mercy who was halfway across the living room. Her friend touched the dark surface of the plasma TV, and then she quickly went through the stack of DVDs. In a flash, she was caressing the glass-topped table at the centre of the room which was decorated with artificial roses. Her eyes widened as she looked at Amaka with admiration. “Eziokwu, this is the life!”
Amaka couldn’t help but smile at her friend’s excitement. She could imagine how the room looked through untrained eyes. She must have had a similar stupefied look the morning after she had first arrived in Enugu almost three years ago. Had it really been that long ago? Of course, some of what Mercy admired now was her doing. For all the money he had, her husband, Kanayo – KY as his friends called him – lacked taste and his preferences for home décor were tacky. Since he spent most of his time in Lagos, she spent most of her time home alone redecorating the mansion’s interior to suit her taste.
“Why didn’t you mention all of this?” Mercy asked as she peered around the house. “We’ve been writing each other letters since you left the village. I had no idea you were living this kind of lifestyle.”
Amaka was silent for a while as she reflected. She could not say that she was happily married, yet she was sure the tradeoff was worth it. Sensing her friend’s reluctance, Mercy quickly changed the topic. “You never mention school in your letters anymore.”
“You didn’t ask.” Amaka’s face brightened up as she thought of her UMEs. “I just finished writing JAMB and I am waiting for my results.”
Mercy’s brow furrowed in confusion. “You were easily much smarter than me in school, and I’m already going into my second year. I thought sending you to school was the first thing your husband said he would do. What happened?”
“You know how these things are,” even though she was positive her friend didn’t, “moving to a new place and adjusting…” She let her words trail off as they sat.
Wisely, Mercy didn’t pursue it. After watching Amaka quietly for a while she gently touched her best friend’s arm. “Are the rumors true?”
Amaka knew where this was headed. “Depends on what you heard.”
Mercy paused, weighing her words carefully. “I have heard that your husband… married you as a second wife?”
Amaka was surprised by how blasé she had grown about this. It had been three years since Kanayo had married her as a teenager and she had accepted this as her reality. He wasn’t single as she had initially assumed. The shock of that had long since faded, but not the humiliation. Nor the feeling of being housed in a spacious wooden box with tall windows through which she could only glimpse the outside world.
“Yes… it’s true. Wife Number One has four girls so far, so ‘our’ husband needs someone to give him a son, hence…” Amaka shrugged her shoulders.
Mercy shook her head slowly. “Men,” she said finally. “And in three years….” with a probing look at Amaka’s belly “nothing?”
The pity in her solemn gaze made Amaka want to smack her friend over the head. Amaka remembered the first night she arrived in Enugu. The bride price had been paid and she was officially “Mrs. Ogbonna”. She was afraid and struggled to maintain her pleasant demeanor as she sat in the passenger side of his Mercedes. As he sped down the freeway, her heart sank as she realized he was finally taking her further away from all that was familiar. By the time they arrived at his sprawling residence, it was dark.
She remembered following him, as they walked past his sitting room and went upstairs to the master bedroom. The silence was oppressive as she followed him, her heart pounding in anticipation of the inevitable. Watching him slowly unbutton his shirt and unzip his trousers had been the most difficult thing, her eyes had kept sliding away. She had been so nervous that her shaky hands were unable to unzip her dress. He eased her out of it, and as she lay back she felt his large belly against her slim frame. He wasn’t unkind – but there was little romance. His hands felt alien as they roughly grabbed her breasts. When he eventually forced his way into her, she thought she was being ripped apart. Her shocked cry of pain was drowned out by his groans as he thrust faster and faster. She lay on her back for what felt like an eternity, as his groaning grew louder and louder. As tears rolled down the sides of her face, he climaxed and suddenly collapsed onto her, slick with sweat and exhausted. She had silently prayed that she would conceive if that meant not having to endure this often.
Mercy gently shook Amaka, snapping her out of her daydream as she waited for an answer.
“Don’t worry,” Mercy replied as she watched her friend with concern. “Is there something to eat?”
“Of course!” Amaka stood up and rushed to the kitchen, bringing back a tray holding dishes of white rice, chicken stew and dodo. “I cooked this for you. I knew you would be hungry. You were always gobbling up your food during lunch at school – that, I remember!”
Mercy politely chuckled as she watched her friend set the food down on the dining table, followed by a glass and a pitcher of cold water. Moments later she placed cutlery and large white plates before her. “At least your husband looks after you.”
Amaka smiled brightly. “I can’t complain, honestly.”
“How often does he come down from Lagos?”
“Every few weeks – when he’s not busy with business or family.”
As Mercy began serving herself, there was a faint knock on the front door. Nodding to her friend to make herself comfortable, Amaka went to open it.
A tall man wearing a fitted shirt and smart trousers smiled from the other side. “Amaka,” he said as his hazel eyes lit up. His trimmed goatee framed his sculpted face – and as he reached out to her, she shot him a warning look. “Dubem.”
She stood back to let him in and as he glanced around, he caught Mercy’s avid gaze. She slowly lowered her fork on to her plate as he nodded at her, smiling.
“Dubem…” Amaka hesitated. “This is my friend, Mercy. Mercy, this is one of my in-laws.”
“Nice to meet you,” Dubem said, nodding at her friend.
“Nice to meet you, too. Come and join us, we’re just having something to eat,” Mercy said, gesturing to the food.
“Um…no, thank you. Maybe later.” Dubem sought Amaka’s gaze. “I was just passing by to… drop something off with Amaka. I errr… have to get to the Federal Secretariat before they close.” Mercy watched as he passed a small parcel to Amaka before quickly leaving. After shutting the door after him, Amaka tucked the parcel into a drawer in the living room.
“What’s that?” Mercy asked, arching curious eyebrows.
“Something my husband sent.”
“You said he’s your in-law?” Mercy went on, pouring water into a glass that instantly frosted over.
“Yes.” Amaka looked at her as she settled down beside her friend. “He is my husband’s second cousin.”
“And you’re this friendly?”
Amaka shrugged lightly, meeting her friend’s eyes. “Well, he was the one who took me in some Maths lessons when I was preparing for my exams. He’s a wizard with calculations and he works as an accountant.”
“He’s fine o. Does he live in Enugu?”
“No… he works in Port Harcourt.”
“Is he single, though? I didn’t see a ring.”
Amaka’s smiled wryly. “Not every man wears a ring these days.” Not her husband, for one. “But yes, he is single.”
“So, what are friends for?” Mercy nudged her friend playfully. “I don’t mind marrying into your family. Then you and I can be in-laws!”
“I’m sure you have more than enough guys at school keeping you busy,” Amaka laughed. “Besides, there’s a girl he’s mentioned a few times.”
Mercy’s face fell. “Is he serious about her?”
“Sounds like it.”
As she changed the subject, Amaka could nevertheless understand Mercy’s instant infatuation. She remembered when some months after their marriage, Kanayo had come home with Dubem. She had gone to the market, and when she returned found that they had arrived earlier than anticipated. On entering the living room, she had barely acknowledged the young man at first. She was so nervous that her husband had arrived before she had made dinner – she was afraid that he would get angry.
“We ate something at one of the restaurants,” Kanayo said offhandedly in his brusque Igbo accent. Legs stretched in front of him, he was typing away at his phone as he added, “Dubem, this is my wife.”
Noticing the younger man fully for the first time, she caught the surprise in his eyes as he stared at her. She suddenly wished she wasn’t so sweaty from the afternoon heat and that she had worn something more flattering than her basic skirt and blouse. Something discomfiting was taking place in her chest. “Welcome,” she curtsied. “I don’t think we have met but nice to meet you.”
Still feeling flustered, she had escaped into the kitchen where she stared into space for a while as she willed her system to return to normal. She proceeded to cook as the two men continued speaking in the living room.
When she had later reminded her husband about his promise to pay for her schooling, he signed her up online for a diploma with the Open University. She was able to ease back into studying most of the topics, however she struggled most with Maths. Uncomfortable at the prospect of his wife studying with strangers, Kanayo recommended that Dubem help her given he was good with Maths. He passed her his number and thus started their private studies together.
As night time set in, Mercy kicked off her sandals as she stretched her legs on the sofa. She yawned as they watched the large TV in comfortable silence, tired after spending the day laughing and catching up. Amaka felt a tinge of sadness as she watched her friend – remembering that she would leave the following day in the afternoon. “I wish you didn’t book your bus ticket to go back home so soon,” she sighed.
Mercy smiled as she turned to look at her friend. Her eyes were red and Amaka could tell that she would soon go to bed. “I have my 200 Level finals soon – I can’t afford to take too much time off from revision. I’ll come back and stay with you for longer next time.”
After watching TV for a few more moments, Mercy slowly stood and stretched. “Oh girl, my eyes are refusing to stay open.”
“Follow me,” Amaka stood up and beckoned. “We have a really nice guest room upstairs which I’ve prepared just for you.”
After settling her in and bidding her goodnight, Amaka closed the guest room door. She then headed to the room she shared with Kanayo, her husband, and had a quick bath before she wore a satin slip. She lay on her bed and stared at the ceiling, unable to sleep. As silence enveloped the house, Amaka grew anxious as she silently stared into space. After what felt like an eternity, she heard the familiar faint knock downstairs. She left her bedroom and crept downstairs. As she slowly clicked the door open, the same tall figure slipped in looking about him.
“Is she asleep?” he whispered.
Amaka nodded as she slowly shut the door. “I thought you wouldn’t come back.”
“You should know me better than that.”
“Sorry I didn’t let you know in advance that she was visiting. Oh, and the earrings are beautiful, thank you.”
“You are beautiful,” he muttered as he held her. Her heartbeat quickened as he embraced her. She felt his body harden as he caressed her arms and waist, her back.
“I thought you’d fallen asleep,” she said. Her nerve endings began responding like a pet to its master.
“I couldn’t sleep knowing you were waiting for me.”
The look in his eyes was all she needed, and with a smile she threaded her fingers through his. “Let’s go upstairs.”
Hannah Onoguwe (@) is a Nigerian author whose fiction and non-fiction has been published in Adanna and BLACKBERRY: A Magazine, as well as in online publications including Litro, The Missing Slate, Cassava Republic, The Kalahari Review, Lawino, The Stockholm Review and Brittle Paper. She is one of the contributing authors to “Imagine Africa 500”, which is a science fiction anthology. One of her short stories was shortlisted for the Awele Creative Trust Award and her other manuscript longlisted for the Saraba Manuscript Prize. In 2014, her collection of short stories, “Cupid’s Catapult”, was one of ten manuscripts chosen as part of the Nigerian Writers Series, which is an imprint of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA).
This story was published in collaboration with Bahati Books, an e-book publishing company that aims to bring to global readers captivating and well-written African Literature by African authors.
Related country: Nigeria
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