My Husband’s Wife
Rain fell, rinsing the trees of dust and fowl droppings and swathing the compound with gales of cold. The women sat around a large pot simmering on fire. Their children swept out crannies of the yard with the long broom until the wet clay glimmered in the morning light. My husband’s new wife was coming. My husband’s brothers were dressing him up in our room. Their voices carried through the walls to me. They made jokes about my husband’s penis. They called it a pestle. They said, tonight, it would pound a fresh mortar, a fertile one.
When the midday sun filtered through the almond tree of our compound, the kinsmen who would accompany my husband to his new wife arrived. They ogled at the women who served them food and teased them. My husband, Eche, appeared at the veranda. He was dressed in his Isiagu regalia and a red cap which he adjusted at intervals. His neck was festooned with coral beads. He broke into an abrupt run, paused halfway and then lurched into the air.
“Ahoi!” the kinsmen hollered and eased into wild laughter.
As they left, I hobbled towards the small crowd. It was tradition, for the first wife to see her husband off, to bid him safe return. But my left leg had snowballed in size since we stopped seeing the orthopaedist at the Military Hospital. I did not move very quickly with the crutches, and could not catch up with them.
Before the accident, I hauled nylon bags into buses at Onitsha and transported them to Awka. It was during one of the trips that I met Eche. He looked so small in the corner of the bus where he sat staring at me. When we alighted at Awka, Eche helped carry my goods to the store where I repackaged them for sale. He was silent, as if his lips lacked the ability to craft words. Everything Eche could not say, he made up with the intensity of his stares. He visited the shop often to ask what I needed help with.
I listened to the rain beat on the zinc sheets as he chewed on my ear lobe, and then slid down to my nipples. Green nerves burst to his forearms as he expended his strength in powerful thrusts. Words pooled in his large eyes. He became a pile of shivers.
The women had left to prepare for the ceremony. Mama Chika, my friend, bustled in our kitchen. She spooned the jollof rice into large flasks for the guests. Her husband had married a new woman the year before because Chika was not a boy.
“It hurts at first,” she said, breathless, the smoky haze from the food and the fire slightly masking her from view. “You shouldn’t let it hurt too much. A man’s penis is a treacherous thing.” She smiled and squinted at me through the smoke, “Never trust a man with a penis.”
The hours crawled by. I dozed in between, watching the trees’ shades increase slowly in size until the shadows they spawned were thrown halfway across the compound. Our neighbours’ children brought iron seats from the town hall and lined them on both sides of the compound. It was almost sundown when the guests trickled into the compound. Soon the kinsmen arrived. My husband walked in first―the small handsome man I married who was no longer so small, no longer so silent, or as invisible as he was the day I met him. He’d grown more words in the past decade, grown paunchy. His eyes were still fierce, still filled with words. He had become temperamental too, so that when his anger ballooned, he deflated it with his fist against the wall.
The bus company he worked for had just laid him off when we first met. I skidded between the din of Onitsha and the sleepiness of Awka, travelling back and forth the two cities, fending for myself and for him. He always waited for me at the stop by the road where I alighted. We’d hail a tricycle and huddle together for warmth in the privacy of the back seat. Often, his hand slipped into my underwear, gently parting the dense hair.
On a warm evening, as the bus I boarded rolled past the pointed hilltops of Umunya and Ukpo, it got snagged by the tires, and somersaulted into a farm. When I came to, it felt like I was caught in something I could not wriggle free from. Eche was seated by me, tender and kind, a surge of gratitude plastered on his face.
“I am so happy you came back to me,” he sobbed. He explained that I was in a fracture repair herbal home. He whispered a lot with the healers who were mostly unsmiling middle-aged women, and returned to me with tight smiles.
“The nurses, you know, they said you won’t use your legs for some time, for a short time, I believe,” Eche said.
My bones did not rejoin after twenty-four months. We sought new remedies which led us to three surgeries. The last surgery was a rod implant. It merely propelled my right leg to movement with the aid of crutches.
The new wife, a thing as slender as a yam tendril, walked in with the kinsmen. Ujuaku! They hailed her as she slithered towards the veranda, towards me. Her narrow waist made her hips appear wider, flaring from her mauve-coloured outfit. A current of air moved around me as I stood, and tried not to buckle in the face of the young woman that would take my place. She had a dimple on her left cheek. We faced each other briefly, as if contemplating whether to become friends. I smiled and we embraced. The crowd cheered. My eyes found Mama Chika nodding at me, her face awash with a sad smile.
Our house was a bungalow of two bedrooms and a living room. I shared one room with Eche. The second was a store room where he kept some tools. Remnants of his childhood littered the room too―an old cot, a wooden box that contained monochrome pictures of people whose faces had been slowly erased by moisture. There was an old bicycle at a corner, and some broken water pots. The new wife was taken to the bedroom I shared with my husband. I heard the women pray for her to be fruitful, and to bring forth daughters and sons who’d fill our hearth with cries. Among the women were Mama Chiazo and Mama Kaima and Mama Zikora―the sisters who sat with me daily, who asked me to never relinquish my place to another. I was being erased, first from Eche’s heart, and now from my room.
“Where will I sleep?” I asked Eche after he saw off his kinsmen. We were alone in that small moment. The room was dim. I wanted to touch the rough skin of his hand. He glared at me, as if he was trying to recollect who I was, or why I would suddenly show up in his face at such a time.
“There are rooms everywhere for you. The store is free. This living room is free. The veranda is also free.” He walked into the bedroom and shut the door. We had never closed that door in the ten years Eche and I spent alone, but I had become a third party and needed to be walled off. I sat on the couch until the rod in my hip began to twitch and hurt. I could not lie on the hard floor so I remained on the couch, gasping from discomfort and adjusting.
The wooden door was thin and could not hold in the sounds coming from the room. My husband’s new wife whimpered all night. I heard Eche’s groans above the bed’s squeaks. I imagined him staring at the new woman with the same intensity he had reserved for me. I saw his eyes froth with unshed tears, his body shivering and crumbling against the young body of a woman who could swing her legs about with ease, who had no rods latched to her hip joints.
Eche found a private driving job after the accident. He saved up money for my therapies and together we hoped through the years, for a time I’d be able to stand or stroll out with no assistance. He set up a funding campaign for the surgeries, and I watched his brow pleat in pain when he counted how far we were from reaching the needed amount. He cooked the meals and attended to almost every of my needs. After the second surgery, desire floated around his face like a squall of rain. His hand brushed often against my breasts, or tugged hungrily at the lappah on my waist. I could not refuse the brown-coloured sacs beneath his eyes, gathered from years of keeping vigil for my pain. There was no question of what I could yet do with my body. I lay on my stomach each night, holding in a scream as he pushed in and out of me. There was no chance to roll over and look into his eyes, to see if he still shed tears. Sometimes his voice was gruff with impatience when he could not part my legs to a convenient angle for his thrusts. My legs throbbed with pain until morning when he lugged me into a sitting position.
Once, he walked in from a town meeting, his face taut as though he had reached a tough bit of an unnamed decision. He stopped doing the chores. Every night, he returned worse. He stopped looking at me. His eyes blew this way and that, never touching on anything. He was unsettled and it made me sad. I tried to act more visible, ignoring the hip pain, staggering about the compound to sweep, mopping the rooms and pushing the pile of unfolded clothes into the wardrobe with my crutches. It was the village women who told me. They gathered on the veranda at sunset.
“Your husband is getting a new wife. You are not the first woman this is happening to. It happened to Adaora, she lives just behind your compound. It happened to Mama Chika, one of our sisters,” Mama Ugo, said. I was expected to swallow this fiery bile rising in my throat, just because there existed a stack of other women in this game of treachery. I watched a bird perch on the red sands of the yard, and then it floated away as if swept up by the wind. I watched it become the size of a small stone, then a pebble, then a dot, until it melded with the evening sky. I was suddenly sealed in a small envelope where women with empty wombs stood, except that mine had less room because I also had nonfunctional legs. I wondered why Eche did not tell me, and if it would have hurt less if he did.
In the first week of the new marriage, my internal distress soared. My hips twitched so painfully that I lost hold of the crutches often and crumpled to the floor.
“I cannot eat or sleep or stop my hands from shaking. As soon as the sun rises I will leave this place,” I told Mama Chika. Yet I stayed, witnessing the blossoming of the dreary romance between Eche and Ujuaku.
Slowly, I grew a passive skin to the blissful life they led, to Ujuaku’s hip swinging when she walked, and to her laughter which was tossed carelessly into the air around us. Often I walked in on them in the living room, kissing. But the severe manic pain I felt at the beginning had waned.
Ujuaku ignored me at first, and scrunched up her nose when she walked by me on the veranda. Then her hostility began to thaw as though she realized I was not a big enough threat to her new place. She began to call me, ‘mother’ which embarrassed me. Was she poking fun at me?
Eche now belonged to her. She had that special claim on him. She knew I didn’t have a child, yet she called me ‘mother’ and I wasn’t too older than her. She asked me a lot of questions. I answered them―showed her to add ginger to an old oil to restore freshness, to add a stick of charcoal to a soured soup, to never store onions and potatoes in one place to avoid rot, and to sprinkle salt into the fire if the food was too salty.
When Eche and Ujuaku were locked in the room, I watched the neighbourhood children occupying my gloom. They jostled their dark legs on the red sand of the compound, fighting for the possession of a leather ball. I watched keenly for cheats.
“Ugo! Kaima! Don’t touch the ball. Play with only your legs.” I played the judge as their shouts met me in the silence of the veranda. I dictated who would be at the middle for a new tournament. They ran to me if anyone broke the rules.
Ujuaku soon grew rounder at the middle. Her slender waist filled out as she moulded a body within her body. Her skin tone took on a lighter shade and she moved about with a certain kind of reluctance, heaving in between walks. Eche stopped her from doing chores. He had come to the kitchen as I peeled a tuber of yam for lunch. The last time he had spoken to me was when he asked me to sleep in the store or on the couch. He stopped at the door as if he could not bear to be in the same room with me.“
Ujuaku is with child. I don’t want her to do chores.” A buzzing filled my ears and my head. I had secretly nursed the hope that she would wait a year or two before conceiving. It had only been two months since their marriage. When I looked up, Eche had disappeared from the door.
Once, Ujuaku slipped into the kitchen and dipped herself into different tasks. I did not want Eche’s wrath so I stopped her.
“You are pregnant now. We need this baby. Go and rest.”
She did not leave. She sat there and rattled off stories with childish incoherence that made me almost pity her.
I reconciled myself to the pregnancy, and to the sad fact that Eche would have his first child through this young woman. When I could not sweep the compound, I waited for Chika to come. Her mother sent her often to help me out. Sometimes, Mama Chika came herself and we sat at the veranda, soaking ourselves in each other’s company. We did not discuss our husbands’ wives, or the new course our lives had suddenly taken. We shared stories that helped us navigate away from the sad corners―stories of a fight at the market, of the inflated prices of fish, of the man from the nearby village whose wife was found dead in their bedroom. In the thick of the tales, we forgot that our husbands’ bodies possibly blazed in those moments with the heat of another woman’s flesh.
Eche’s old self flickered in his eyes often when he walked by me, especially if Ujuaku was away in the bedroom. He was not a bad person. He belonged to a different cut: would never shout or threaten no matter how charged his temper was. He rarely spoke to me, and when he did, he looked away. It was out of pressure that he nurtured the soft growl that now appeared welded to his throat.
“Where are my shoes?” he asked one morning as he prepared for work.
“They are on the top of the shoe rack.”
“I did not ask you, woman. Ujuaku, where are my shoes?”
“Check the rack, dear,” Ujuaku’s sing-song voice drained out to the living room where I sat.
I separated some garlic heads and chose a clove of five. Then I plucked one and peeled off the papery skin, pinching it hard, afraid that it would wiggle away from me and I was never going to see it again. The garlic suddenly appeared blurred and bigger in size, and flicked back to the original size when a tear droplet fell from my eyes. I tried to hold in the tears but the small hallways of my heart―the missing life in my legs, the empty womb, the new woman, and the lost husband―kept distending and exploding. I wept until my face felt puffed and soft beneath my fingers.
My eyes fell on the chalks of potash tied up in a transparent nylon bag lying on the kitchen rack. The house was silent. There were no faint bustles. Ujuaku might be on her routine nap. I poked the bag and it fell at my feet. Grey dust covered the back. All of a sudden, it felt like an epiphany, a scattered light of the morning in the thick dusk. I drifted to the childhood years in a settlement that always carried a nip in the air. It also has disadvantages, my mother said sometimes as she added a dash of potash powder to our ukwa meals for faster cooking.
I sprinkled in a dash of potash to the yam porridge. Ujuaku nearly ate up half the pot when she woke up trembling with hunger. We sat at the veranda and shelled melon seeds. We scared off a hawk that swooped in to steal a chick. We howled in laughter when a cock chased a fowl about, forcefully demanding sexual intimacy. We talked about our ancestral towns, compared our rivers and the steep hills. We did not talk about Eche. No matter how hard we bared our chests to each other, we remained conscious of the barricade, and how far on the opposite planes we were.
I asked her often after the child in her womb. Our child, I called it, though her belly was still flat. She would smile and drag her hand over the child, as if without her touch she would not know. Does it kick or move? How do you know it’s there? I asked. She gave out a heartfelt laugh, as if to say, well, you have never been pregnant. How can you know?
“The foetus cannot move until the eighteenth week, mother.” The word ‘mother’ stung. I blinked against the pain.
“How do you know? It’s your first time,” I asked.
“My mum is a nurse.”
I began to add a little more than a dash of potash to all the meals and some more to the water pot reserved for drinking.
“I like your sisterhood with her,” Mama Chika said. We were seated in the open compound. Some of our neighbours’ children had trickled in to play.
“Yes. The demon my husband married would not allow such relationship to grow between us.”
“Mama Chika, you do not need the friendship.’
“You know, that child she’s carrying is going to be Chika’s sibling.”
“I know. And so what?”
“Well, I am happy you are getting along with Ujuaku.”
“Yes, we are.”
One week later, my husband came to the couch where I lay to announce, “We are going to the hospital.” His tone was urgent. Slowly, slowly, he helped Ujuaku out of the room, and she leaned heavily on him. Her eyes were closed, and she looked like a dead woman walking.
I waited all morning, restless. The anxiety I felt made the back of my skull feel as if it would split open. I shelled melon seeds and tidied the house. Someone tugged at the gate and Mama Chika ran in. Mama Ugo and Mama Kaima followed.
“Don’t cry, please. Don’t cry,” Mama Chika said as she drew closer. “You must not cry, you hear me?” I became confused at her tone. Bells tolled in my head. Mama Ugo patted my arm, and asked me to be strong. I wondered if something bad had happened to Eche. Had there been an accident?
Eche and Ujuaku soon walked into the compound. Ujuaku leaned on him. Her skin had taken on a darker shade, and she looked as if chunks of her flesh were cut off. Her face was puffy from crying. I made to move towards her, steadying my crutches into position, but the both of them reached me first. She slumped on the veranda, her hands on her stomach as if she was still guarding the content. Eche appeared lesser, as if a deep hole was dug through him. His shoulders were slumped, and he looked once more like the man I’d met in a bus ten years ago, who waited for me at the roadside, and became my legs when they failed.
I stroked Ujuaku’s heaving back and said,
“God gives. God takes. He will send us another child.”
Frances Ogamba is a 2022 CLA fellow at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Her short story, My Husband’s Wife, won the 2020 Kalahari Short Story Competition. She also won the 2022 Diana Woods Award in Creative Nonfiction and the 2019 Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction. She is a finalist for the 2019 Writivism Short Story Prize and 2019 Brittle Paper Awards for short fiction. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming in Ambit, Chestnut Review, CRAFT, New Orleans Review, Lunch Ticket, Vestal Review, The Dark Magazine, Uncharted, midnight & indigo, Jalada Africa, in The Best of World SF and elsewhere. She is a 2022 Pushcart Prize & Locus Awards Nominee. She is an alumna of the Purple Hibiscus Creative Writing Workshop taught by Chimamanda Adichie.