The air was moist in Obiageli’s room. She remained on the bed, oblivious to the growing heat in the room. From the window, she could hear the sound of the women in the backyard. If she opened the window, she was sure that the smell of ofe onugbu and burning goatskin would accompany smoke to evade the serenity of her space. She also didn’t want to listen to their village gossip—if it wasn’t about the expensive wedding that had taken place the previous weekend. Or the old man who had recently found out that the son, whom he sent to study medicine in the university had returned a musician.
It reminded her of her traditional marriage five years ago. That day, she was full of restless excitement, supervising the women as they cooked, tasting the soup to make sure that everything was perfect, dashing them a generous amount of leftover rice and fried chicken. Her mother had been happy too. She and the women from the ummuada had sung and danced in the backyard, and the other women sang along with them. They sang songs of motherhood and wifehood. Obiageli had accepted the ummuada wrapper and had shaken her hips to the ummuada anthem.
When she was handed the wooden cup filled with palm wine, Obiageli shook her waist to Flavour’s Golibe as she looked for her husband. She could still remember clearly, she had knelt in front of him, taking a sip of the white drink before handing it to him. He put five one-thousand naira notes inside the cup when he emptied the contents. She watched as he licked his lips, imagining those same lips on hers. Girly shyness filled her as she danced with him. She danced on naira notes. One of her uncles had sprayed dollar notes on her too. The soft caress of the notes against her sweaty skin had filled her with pride, a feeling that remained with her days after the wedding. Her father’s voice as he muttered his blessings into the microphone when they knelt in front of him had been her biggest consolation as she rode out of the compound with her husband in a white range rover. Her little cousins, along with other children, had sung goodbye songs, running behind the car until they had driven too far away from them.
“You married well,” her mother said over the phone when she had called her to inform her of the impending family meeting, her words were punctuated with sighs of disappointment. “Obiageli, you married well. Why will you destroy yourself like this?”
The bed squeaked as Obiageli stood up. She eyed the offensive mattress in anger. She had gotten a new mattress when she and the twins had returned for the Christmas holiday. She was certain that Oma had taken it back to school. She pulled a top over the black bra that did little to hold up her falling breasts, slid her feet into rubber slippers and went out of the room. She walked on her tiptoes to the dining. The voices from the living room were muted by the cream wall with charcoal and oil stains. She removed her slippers and stalked around the dining to the outside corridor that connected it to the living room. She was grateful when she found the window open. She bit her lips as she tried to open the window quietly, stilling in her actions when the window made a squeaky noise.
She peeked into the parlour. She sighed when she realized that the TV that she had installed on the wall had disappeared. The wide parlour was filled with about fifteen men seated on the white chairs. They sat around her father’s kola table. Bottles of Star stood like kings on the plastic table, along with a wide tray of garden eggs. She spotted The Professor. He was dressed in a white senator, his jaw rested acutely on his palm as he listened intently to what Uncle Okoye was saying. His right leg tapped against the floor rapidly with impatience. Obiageli almost chuckled, holding in her laughter when she remembered where she was.
“Arrant nonsense,” he said without waiting for Okoye to complete his sentence. They were not talking about her, she realized. Instead, they were discussing the current rise in the price of fuel and the road construction project that the local government had left uncompleted.
Obiageli remained behind the window vaguely listening to their conversation and counting the tiny stones on the window sill until she heard her mother calling her. She quickly slipped out through the dining. Her mother was in front of her room.
“Where were you?” Mama Chidi asked as soon as she saw Obiageli. The corner of her lips was curled in distaste.
“Ma,” Obiageli muttered, knowing that it would only make matters worse if she said anything else.
She was taken back in time, when she was eleven years, the first time she had cooked porridge yam. The food had come out too salty, and the yam too soft that it became what Oma called ‘yam pudding’. She had cut her finger while slicing the vegetables, but that had been the least of her mother’s concerns as she chased her around the house a short whip in her hand. “Is this what you will cook for your husband?” had become the anthem whenever her food came out not as good as she expected, or whenever her mother found lumps of cocoyam in the ora or onugbu soup. Her mother had taught her to prepare delicious meals and take care of the house, but she had not prepared her for cheating or wife-beating husbands.
“And so what?” Her mother had queried when she had complained that Ikenna had a girl outside their marriage.
Right now, the same woman who had been all smiles when she was preparing for her traditional marriage was now full of spite and scorn as she hastened her to dress in a pale-coloured wrapper that laid haphazardly on the bed.
“You’re not ashamed of yourself. You-” Her mother said when she came out of her room with a white blouse over the wrapper. “Biagodu, Obiageli, what gave you the effrontery to climb another man’s bed eh? A married woman? With two children?” She shook her head. “Chei! Is that how I raised you?”
Obiageli had become immune to the words that spewed out of her mother’s mouth. She had stopped wondering why no one spoke about how Ikenna beat her because she had threatened to confront his girlfriend, or why he even had a mistress outside their home. She had always been confident of her marriage with Ikenna, proud of their four-year-old twins. Whenever she saw messages on Joro’s Instagram page about cheating husbands and their young side chicks, she’d always typed consolatory messages. That was until her cousin sent the picture to her. Her husband and a younger girl laughing as they entered Shoprite, his hands seemed to fit perfectly against the girl’s tiny waist. She had found it hard to believe, somehow Ifunnanya was only looking for a way to spite her. She must have photoshopped the picture, Obiageli had thought. She had ignored the pictures until she saw the WhatsApp chats between Ikenna and the girl. Her name was Somto, and she was a Youth Corper.
Obiageli confronted Ikenna and his reply had been, “I didn’t intend for you to find out.” It had followed with an exchange of words and ended with her nursing a blackened eye and sore cheekbones. That night, she sent a message to Joro’s page, crying herself to sleep while she looked through her wedding pictures. The responses on Instagram were of little consolation to her. Their messages of comfort seemed entwined with ridicule. She could imagine some of them laughing at her with their friends.
Zubby chatted her up the next day. She had been reluctant, but after a few days, he convinced her that cheating back on her husband was the best way to revenge on Ikenna.
Ikenna found them together on the couch in their living room. Obiageli set it up, waiting until Ikenna drove into the house before she entangled herself with the young, lean man. When Ikenna raised his hand to hit her, Zubby punched him hard in the face.
That night, Ikenna called her parents, nursing his swollen face and muttering “what insolence.”
She didn’t regret the act, she had nothing to regret. Despite what it seemed like, she didn’t cheated on her husband. She only wanted him to feel what she had felt when she found out about Somto. It was because of this that she had kept a calm face all through her parent’s insult and queries.
Obiageli’s eyes were on her mother’s rapidly moving legs as they went to the parlour. Her mother’s feet were cracked against the worn-out rubber slippers. She sighed as she wondered where all the money she often sent to her parents went.
Silence settled in the parlour as she and her mother entered.
“Ndiogo, nno nu.” My mother bent slightly at her knees. Obiageli mirrored her actions. She kept her head down but she could still feel their sharp gazes piercing through her. The smell of palm wine and nkwobi was heavy in the air. When she was much younger, she enjoyed gatherings like this in the village when the family returned home for the holidays. She and her siblings, Chidi and Oma, would peer into the parlor through the window, scrambling to drink the remaining palm wine in the keg after the visitors had gone. Once they had taken too much of the local drink and had nursed headaches as their parents scolded them. They had fought over who would lick the leftover ose-oji in the plate that usually sat in the middle of garden egg waste, and hide away when any of them were called to clean up. Now, she had little appetite for the nkwobi that had been the cause of many quarrels between her and her siblings.
Her mother pushed her on the shoulder to kneel in the middle of the room. She shrugged her hand away. She looked up and came face to face with Ikenna. He was dressed in a blue senator, the same one he had worn in the picture with his girlfriend. She scoffed and looked away. The action brought whispers from the men.
Her mother slapped her at the back of her head. “Mind yourself o. Respecti onwe gi,” she whispered fiercely.
Her father was the first person to speak, clearing his throat as he sat forward on his seat. Obiageli eyed him suspiciously. He was the same person that had prayed over their union, breaking a kola over their heads as the crowd continuously chorused “ise.” The expression of pure joy on his face that day was now replaced with anger and bitterness. Obiageli was oblivious to all that was said. She fixed her eyes on the grey tiles and the thought of the twins filled her mind. In all that would happen, she was more concerned about them.
She was brought back to the parlour by a harsh tap on her shoulder. She looked up. About fifteen sets of eyes were on her. “You didn’t hear what your father said?” her mother queried.
She shook her head slowly.
“Nwa nka. What kind of attitude is this?” one of the men muttered. The other men resounded his question.
“Apologise to your husband now. Siya ni di sorry,” her mother said, her voice filled with urgency. “They have agreed to give you listening ears. You should be lucky, not all families will be able to forgive this abomination.”
Obiageli looked at all of them, from her mother’s anxious face to her father’s stoic expression, and then to Ikenna’s nonchalant and pride-filled expression. She thought of the hours she had spent in the kitchen making sure that he came home to a table with a steaming plate of soup and eba waiting for him, or the times she had nursed shoulder aches when he wanted to take homemade akpu. The early mornings she spent making breakfast and lunch so that he wouldn’t to buy food from eateries with questionable hygeine. She remembered when she’d had to forfeit a promotion at the office because he hadn’t agreed with it.
“No, mba. I am not going to apologize until Ikenna says something about that girl.” She shook her head and made to stand up but her mother’s grip was firm. It kept her where she was.
“Chineke mo. This girl will kill me. Holy Ghost fire. Are you possessed?” Her mother’s loud voice muted the voices of other people, but Obiageli heard someone mutter. “Tufiakwa, nka bu ekwensu.”
Her father shushed her mother, reducing her to low mumbling. “Ndiogo, biko, don’t mind my daughter. I did not train her well. She seems unwell at this time. Can we set this meeting for another time? By that time, things will go back to normal, and we can let the two couple return to the city.”
“No,” Ikenna’s father shouted. He was a small man, but what he lacked in size he made up for in his mouth. “Nothing like that is happening here.” He spoke in English. “I cannot allow my son to go back to a cheating witch. Mba, tufia. Ikenna is not going back with this woman.”
“Chimo!” Obiageli’s mother went on her knees. “Ogoo anyi, bikonu. It hasn’t gotten to this level o.”
“Keep quiet!” Her father shouted. He turned to the small man, his face a mask of humility. “Please, ogoo, we can resolve this matter peacefully, there is no need to say this kind of thing.”
Ikenna scoffed. “Then tell your daughter to apologize. Look at how rude she is.”
Hearing his voice set off a button in Obiageli. She stood up and looked at Ikenna, her voice riddled with contempt. “So I am now rude eh? When you were running around Awka with that small girl, you didn’t think it was rude abi? Now, you want me to apologize.” She hissed. “See, let me tell you something, you and all these people here-” she looked at her father and then at her mother then continued ignoring the warning look on her father’s face. “You see this marriage eh, don’t kill yourself over it. Me, I have washed my hands over this matter. I am not going back to that house with Ikenna. Chidera and Chiemerie are with my friend. Ikenna, I will go to the church on Saturday, you still remember our parish right? I am going there. I have already told Father Martins that I want a divorce. If you like sign it, if you like don’t sign it. Just know that Obiageli Onuegbu is no longer your wife.”
She turned to leave and was almost at the door when she turned to her parents. “When you come to terms with my decision, call me. If you want to see your grandchildren, I will let Oma bring them back.”
She returned to her room, packed the few things she had come back with into her bag. When she came out of the house, Ikenna was standing in front of the gate. She paused for a while, but heaved a breath then continued towards the gate.
“Obiageli, what is wrong with you? How will you disrespect your elders like that?” He said as she neared him.
Obiageli ignored him, reaching around him to open the gate. He pulled her arm and dragged her close to him.
“Jesus!” A sharp pain shot through her arm to her shoulder. “Ikenna, hapu akam!”
“So you don’t know your mate again? I’m talking to you and you are carrying your face for me? Are you mad?”
The pain in her arm increased as he tightened his grip, tears welled in her eyes. “Leave me alone, biko. I don’t want trouble.”
He pushed her away roughly. She fell on the floor, dust rising from the impact. She sat up on the floor and looked at him. “What do you want again, Ikenna? Kedu iye e cho? Have you not beaten me enough?”
He smiled coldly. “The evil spirit that entered you and made you to bring that boy to my house will not save you if I start with you today. Go back to that house and apologize to everybody there. The only reason I am even allowing you to go back with me is that that boy did not touch you, better come back when I am still being forgiving.”
Obiageli spat. “God forbid. Even if you kill me, I am not going back anywhere with you. Go and marry that girl na, is she not the person that you’re always going to see on Sunday?”
“You’re trying me, Obiageli. I’m going to give you thirty seconds to carry yourself to that house, if not…” He looked at his watch, his lips twitched with the promise of violence as he bit his lips.
Obiageli feared the look in his eyes, it was red, redder than it had been when he had seen her together with Zubby. She feared what he would do. She feared he would kick her around as he had done to the cat that once found its way into their home and ate the meat he had left on the veranda. She feared that the next gathering in the compound would be for her funeral. She stood up on shaky legs, wincing when she felt a sour pain on her hip. With one last longing look at the faded red gate, she limped back to the house, a dishevelled shadow of her former self. He followed behind her, snapping at her to walk faster. He sneered when he saw the mud stains at the back of her skirt. “You don’t even know how to take care of yourself.” He mumbled with a snide laugh.
The men were still seated in their seats. The smell of ofe onugbu hovered around the room. Her mother stood at a corner of the room watching them, a worried look on her face as she was intent on playing the good hostess. The men stuffed morsel after morsel of fufu dipped in the soup into their mouths. One called for more soup, another asked why there were only two meats in the soup.
“Obiageli!” Her mother was the first person to notice her presence.
Obiageli ignored her and knelt in the middle of the parlour. The men paused, but quickly returned to eating. It wasn’t until they had finished eating, belched and picked their teeth that they acknowledged her.
She couldn’t remember how the meeting went, or the words that came out of her mouth. She couldn’t remember what had been said or how the matter had been resolved. She remembered faintly though, leaving the house with Ikenna’s arm wrapped around her waist. They must have formed a picturesque couple, she thought given by the bright smile on her mother’s face as she waved at them. It was a different smile from the one she wore five years as she had been driven out of the house in her lace skirt and blouse, it was a smile of relief, a smile that said business had been taken care of, a smile that meant everything will go back to how it was before, a smile that was cracked at the edges with bitterness.
Johnny Drille’s smooth and modulated voice drifted from the stereo as they drove back to Awka. On any other day she would have sung along to his songs, her crude voice bouncing off the windows. It would be a short journey, less than an hour. But for Obiageli, it seemed longer.
Ikenna said nothing throughout the journey and she was grateful for that, she wasn’t sure if she could ever hold a decent conversation with him. As trees and houses flashed by, she could feel herself heading towards a bleak cave, one similar to the hell the priest preached about on Sundays, the one that would become the eternal damnation for sinners. But this hell was not a fiery furnace, ‘hell on earth’ they called it.
She could feel the light in her soul dim as they drove farther away from the village. She was going to her hell, she thought as a sad smile lingered on her lips. And at that moment, the thought of the other hell called out to her, its voice soft in a seductive way. It was a call that she could hardly refuse.