Okeke let the last scoop of dust trickle through his fingers to the ground as he stood by his wife’s freshly dug grave. He stared at the small crowd gathered around Oriaku’s graveside with unseeing eyes. The red dust clung to his sweaty palms and he wiped them on his trousers. He ground his teeth as he thought to himself how fate had dealt him a cruel hand; first with his son’s illness, then his daughter’s disappearance and now the death of his wife.
Oriaku never really got over the loss of Nnedi. As soon as she returned from her futile attempt to see Nnedi at Onitsha, she took ill. The doctors at the government hospital said she was diabetic and hypertensive but in spite of the treatment given to her by the doctors, Oriaku’s condition continued to deteriorate. She continued to lose weight and look frailer by the day. It was as if she had determined that she had nothing else to live for. Okeke watched as his once beautiful wife metamorphosed into a sickly shadow of her former self. When he could take Oriaku’s self-destruction no longer, he voiced his concern to his father who suggested that they take her to see a renowned dibia. The dibia’s declarations were even more sinister. He told them that Oriaku’s spirit had already transited to the other world and that her body was to follow shortly. He asked them to bring the right foot of a female tortoise, some palm oil and thirteen yards of white cloth for him to perform some sacrifices on behalf of Oriaku to halt her journey. After the sacrifice, it was as if Oriaku was given a new lease on life. She bounced back to good health almost immediately and regained all the weight she had lost. She returned to her stall in the market and life in Umuaku continued as usual until that fateful morning when she slumped.
It was a market day and Okeke had gotten up early to watch the sunrise from his verandah. Oriaku was in the kitchen at the back of the compound preparing breakfast. On market days she left the house earlier than usual since buyers from the neighbouring towns flooded the market in search of fresh produce from the farms. He watched as the sun peeked from behind a curtain of easterly clouds and sighed as a gust of wind blew his wrapper about his legs. His reverie was cut short when Chidi bolted to the front of the compound looking like he had seen a ghost.
“Papa! Papa!! There’s something wrong with mama”, he screamed
“Where is she?”
“She’s lying down on the kitchen floor. She’s not answering me”
Okeke rushed behind Chidi as they headed for the kitchen. They carried her into the house and laid her on her bed. Okeke shook her vigorously but she didn’t wake up. He swung into action, put her on his back and started running to the nearby health center as fast as his legs and her extra weight would let him. The townspeople trailed behind him as he trudged on, oblivious of their sympathetic stares. When they got to the health center, the nurse told them that Oriaku was already dead. Before he could do anything, four able-bodied men had swooped in on him and herded him out of the small waiting area of the health center. He struggled against them with all his might but he was no match for their youth and vigour.
Chinwe smiled coyly as Okoye rubbed against her thighs. She had good news for him tonight; she was pregnant! She moaned as Okoye sheathed himself in her velvety warmth and wrapped her arms around him urging him to quicken his pace.
A knock sounded on the door and they both stilled hoping the intruder would go away. Chinwe wiggled her hips provocatively beneath him and Okoye soon forgot about the knocking at the door as they swayed once more to a timeless rhythm. The knocking came again, this time louder and more insistent. Okoye stood up, a frown on his face as he hurriedly put on his trousers.
He opened the door slightly and was shocked to see his younger brother Nwoye and his first wife Ugonwa at the door.
He turned back to look at the bed and saw that Chinwe had somehow found her wrapper and was struggling to cover her modesty as she dragged herself from the bed. It was his wife Ugonwa who found her voice first.
“Do you believe me now”, she said turning to Nwoye
Nwoye nodded silently
“Husband snatcher”, Ugonwa screamed as she brushed past Okoye, finding her way into the room.
“You will not mourn your husband in peace”, she continued, clapping in Chinwe’s face
“You are a disgrace to womanhood”
“Tufiakwa”, she spat
“Please take her home”, Okoye pleaded with Nwoye
Okoye bolted the door firmly behind him but not before Nwoye had pulled a screaming and kicking Ugonwa out of the room. Thankfully Ugonwa’s shouts were not loud enough to disturb the rest of the compound. Okoye thanked his stars that Chinwe’s mourning chamber was at the far end of the compound, away from the rest of Ihenacho’s other wives and children. He listened intently for any more sounds from any of the other apartments and when there was none he moved to sit on the bed.
“I am pregnant”, Chinwe blurted out
“You are what?”
“I said I am pregnant”
“I heard you the first time. Aren’t you a bit too old to be having children?” he scoffed
“Well, I’m pregnant”, Chinwe sobbed
“Listen to me, you old hag”, said Okoye through clenched teeth; “You have already disgraced me in front of my brother and my wife. Only God knows how many people she has gone to tell about what she saw here tonight. I am a respected elder in this village and I will not have you soil my name. You couldn’t keep your legs together and now you want to blame me for your predicament?”
“What do you mean by my predicament? Are we not in this together?” she yelled
“Keep your voice down, you harlot. You are on your own! How do I even know if I am the only one you’ve been sleeping with since my brother’s death?”
Okoye moved to the door. Chinwe stood up and planted herself between him and the door.
“Chinwe, get out of my way”, he warned
“Or what?” she demanded
She seized the collar of his shirt and held him tightly, willing him to take another step away from the room.
“Woman, this is your last chance”, he seethed
“Do your worst”, she taunted him
Okeke tried to extricate his shirt from her vice-like grip and when she wouldn’t let go, he pushed her violently.
Chinwe’s bottom landed squarely on the floor with a loud thud. Before she could stand up Okoye had slunk away into the night.
By morning, news of Chinwe and Okoye’s illicit affair was all over the town; the women gossiped about it in hushed tones. That same day, the elders summoned Chinwe to the town hall. As she walked to the town hall, people walked behind her careful not to go too close to her. She could hear the women hurling insults at her as she trekked on in silence.
She was asked to kneel down in the center of the hall while they deliberated on her case. She scanned the faces of the men seated in a circle surrounding her but she couldn’t find Okoye among them. Outside the hall, a throng had gathered to watch the proceedings. She kept her head down and shut her eyes trying to blot out the public spectacle that was taking place around her.
When the elders were done deliberating, they decided that she should be punished for dishonouring her husband’s spirit. According to them, she had soiled Ihenacho’s name and inadvertently made it difficult for his spirit to successfully journey to the afterlife. To appease Ihenacho’s spirit and cleanse her of adultery, she was to walk around the market, naked, on the next market day. The crowd erupted into pandemonium. From where she knelt down, Chinwe saw her elder brother out of the corner of her eye as he stepped forward to plead that she be given a lesser sentence. The elders were adamant, insisting that the sentence they had passed was befitting for Chinwe’s crime. The elders dispersed leaving her kneeling. Her brother helped her up and steered her out of the hall. The crowd had swelled by the time Chinwe got out of the hall and they trailed her all the way to her family’s compound as she was ordered not to return to her husband’s compound. The following day, Nwoye and Nwafor called at Chinwe’s family house. Their mission, they claimed, was to return her bride price and dissolve the marriage between their brother Ihenacho and the adulteress. They left as soon as their business was concluded.
Chinwe rubbed her stomach as she thought about her unborn child. Tears streamed down her face as the realization of what was about to happen to her hit her. She had truly disgraced herself, her children and her family; she thought. The next day was the market day and as sure as the rising of the sun, the elders would be at her father’s gate to lead her stark naked to the market. She got up from the verandah where she had been sitting and brushed the tears from her eyes. She went into one of the rooms and found the container she was looking for behind the door. She was going to end it tonight. She would not let her children suffer because of their mother’s indiscretion.
When one of her cousins was sent to wake her up in the morning, they found Chinwe cold and unresponsive, a can of rat poison on the floor beside her bed. The elders shook their heads at her misfortune and went away quietly. The women beat their chest and wailed loudly at Chinwe’s sad fate.
“Please greet mama and papa for me”, Nnedi said as she hugged Ezinne tightly
“Tell them that I miss them”
Ezinne hugged her tightly.
The bus was getting ready to move. Ezinne’s sister, her sister’s husband and their three children were seated in the bus already. They were travelling to Umukau for the Christmas holidays.
“Please take care of the house and don’t forget to lock the door at night”, said Ezinne’s sister
Nnedi waved at the bus as it zoomed off in a cloud of smoke and dust and cursed her fate; the fate that made it impossible to see her family. Going to Umuaku would mean risking the wrath of Ihenacho’s family. She turned spun round and trudged home silently.