Fiction | Short Story

How To Ride a New Wife

There are no second visits for first daughters.

It starts with the sudden plunk of the neck this way and that way, so that both arms shoot upwards, eyes buried in themselves, right shoulder perked a peak above the left, ribs searing the fringes of its cage through her gown, the aggressive walling of the knees against each other as the legs faceoff.

Like pubescence, it sprang upon her, upon us, met us unprepared every time, and left in a big hurry.

Every time it left, Paul made his arms into a wind vane and conducted her back to earth, while I stayed two people away, accused one or two deities whose names rolled off my tongue wrong, and then waited for aunty Jemisin to say it was OK to hug her.

These hugs often cost every first hugger something now and then: blood spurting from the channel behind the ear, fingernail scratches which sawed into skin as if a scimitar, hair plucked from the neck, a swath of lace peeled off, sometimes, a French slap – the kind which triggered unrelated questions afterwards.

Every time this thing seized her, she came back different, reborn, as though a clique of drunken plastic surgeons had betted on reconstructing her, without a clear winner. But the result was often deliberate, professional. One saw the hints here and there; smoother skin, more flesh, subdued pimples, whiter teeth, clear-water eyes, heavier brows . . . but the work was never complete.

Slowly, it took from her, from us, hearing, then later coherent language. She began speaking in a language different from the Mother tongue, different from any language of the nineteen villages (omahonors from eighteen villages confirmed she didn’t speak their tongue.) Words trembled out of her lips as if she was biting on a snow bank or giving distressing news from another world. Gradually, letters and sentences regressed, back through man’s evolution until I imagined she gained proficiency in the language of Darwin’s first men.

When it came, it did with tremendous power, a frenetic burst of strength from the next world, the kind which enveloped her as she tore out of the compound and blitzed through shut gates, as knife through thin foil.

In the beginning, we followed it wherever it led, to find out where it led her, what it was, how we could stop it.

Once, she tore out into the forest in the middle of the night, crying, tearing her skin or having some invisible hand do it, splintering the gate, and robbing the entire village of sleep. Men, hunters and fishermen and fruit-gatherers during the day, annoyed and compassionate at once, emerged from their houses bearing clubs, little pestles, sack ropes – for a small hunt. Women, sucklings perched on the cusp of their backs, and little boys, brave or stubborn or stupid, trotted behind.

The leader of this hunt as always was the man from whose compound the terror emerged, so uncle Adeiza led the charge, the men behind him split into groups of four and three and two. Those who remembered to clutch a torch in their dash flicked them on and undressed the darkness. Some had wick-lit lamps whose dull glow seemed not to offer illumination at all, but instead interpret the darkness surrounding them.

Other men imagined daylight in this vast darkness. Men like Uncle Adeiza and his friends, men who have lived here at least five decades, having spent their childhood trapping rabbits in these bushes, discovering dead rodents while taking a dump; men who even for the draw of a miner’s check never ventured outside the village. These men had the finer geography of these bushes beating inside them like second hearts; the shrubs, the thorny intersections, wiry paths, muddy spots, even the hilly undergrowths was as present a part of their body as an arm could possibly claim.

Hours later, uncle Adeiza, followed closely by the first small group of men, two of them, his drinking buddies, emerged from the void holding two hairy hands. Every time she changed like that, depending on what form she took, she shed some body parts from the original: an otter’s webbed feet, a horse’s hoof, a bighorn sheep’s horn, a buffalo’s humps, a rhinoceros’s horn, an exmoor’s little curved horns.

It was a gerenuk first, a chimpanzee, and then finally a hellbender. Uncle Adeiza was explaining to his wife, our aunt Jemisin, a petit, curvaceous woman whose chiseled face concealed a graying mustache and inquisitive motherly eyes that search and hide a little at the same time. He showed her the chimpanzee’s arms and tossed his bloodied shirt over his head to the floor. His friends, Adayi Hwache and Adayi Itopa did the same. While the men mixed strong drinks, aunty Jemisin and a few other women worked the hell-broth, into which the arms would be thrown later.

Three hours later, at the first sight of dawn, she appeared, fitter, fleshier and far lovelier than yesterday. Then the omahonor arrived and examined her, patted her lovingly on the cheek, exchanged grim words with the older men and took the boiled arms with him.

One time she fought it, with some success. This was around the first time a suitor visited. The diviners believed an early marriage drove the demons out faster. She was nineteen, six years older than me, two years younger than Paul. A warrior known through all nineteen villages as One Blow Seven Die was coming to pledge himself to my sister.

They called him One Blow Seven Die because they said when he punched anyone, man or beast, six more felt the devastation if they strayed too close. He had fists the size of an adulterous woman’s thighs and fingers which could comfortably paddle a small boat in bad weather. Everyone knew who he was, how many he had maimed or committed to earth, and the bravest people said his name in whispers. I was explaining to her that this man was nothing like any man we’d seen, for his arms were big balls of rapid-breathing veins and his shoulders brushed the sky as he walked.

She dismissed my imagery lightly, in that soft, feathery manner that she dismissed her breakfast and dinner, and left aunty Jemisin with several columns in her brows. You can’t possibly believe these things you’re saying, she said, a wary smile framing her pale cheeks. I told her I believed his fists to be far deadlier than polio. My admiration was mixed with fear, despite the fact I had no intention of becoming a prize fighter in this life or the next one, so I’d never have occasion to have my limbs sacked by One Blow Seven Die.

Then it arrived. I did not anticipate it. I always thought I could do a vigilante’s job of it so I could prevent it. See, I was convinced if one kept watch, real diligent watch, one could see it coming, hear its thunder, smell it in the air like bombs pouring from military jets during the World Wars. I doubt if she felt it coming herself. It is simply impossible to sniff the approach of evil, for evil in itself is without form, without smell, and without color, until it happens.

Outside, the sun was setting in the shady green of our backyard, visible through the small window behind her, as a moment of rural quiet prevailed – the cry of a baby, the rattle of a horse’s harness, the crackling of fire under a pot; those natural sounds that really never take anything from the silence. There was a rustle through rubber trees, then a hush. The tree-hoppers wading through the withered branches of a dying pin oak harmonized the atmosphere in a warm melody, deeply contrasting the faint chill of the afternoon air, as the bent frames of a tree’s shadow flowed in silhouettes through the window.

I had just finished telling her how I once flew into a rage when a boy at school threw a paper plane at the Math teacher and pointed to me when he turned. I got flogged for it and when I thought I would get my revenge, ended up with a swollen lip. I was the class joke for an entire term. I’m no warrior, I said to her.

I was going to begin yet another anecdote about One Blow Seven Die when suddenly she jerked furiously and started to rise without seeming to get up. Perhaps I didn’t spot it quickly because she was putting up such a brave fight, pushing back the relentless darkness framing her skin. Until she reached mid-air, I didn’t see her neck plunk suddenly sideways, didn’t see her legs crumble into poetic paragraphs of limbs, a terrifying torsion, or her eyes shoot up in flames from its own spark like a magic trick; self-consuming. I wanted to reach up, pull it down, this pinniped thing, help her fight it in anyway I could, but she became this sidereal element one could only watch float above one’s head, a constellation in her own little planet. Right there, before my eyes, she was becoming a slight, furred, something-other-than-human with a long nose and sad green eyes. The skin on her arms became very ripe and developed an urgent lush, with a kind of Shiroro dam of energy and a kind of irrepressible power. Her eyes, those same sad, green eyes, became cavernous, her lips turned plump and was bursting with fullness, her skin transformed within seconds into a mottled and flaky surface with a sallow tinge and a massive wart on the region where her forehead once was.

Right then, she became this thing, this monstrous child whom you cherish, but who horrifies your neighbors.

The next sound was a loud, scraping sound, of a whirring ceiling fan whacking something metallic, a clang-clang. The scream formed in my throat, I swear, the words formed. But for some reason, they just hung there, stubborn, shy, scared or all three. I didn’t stop to check what final form she gained, nor do I remember pushing the door outwards. I only know that I returned with older men afterwards to a burning hut, from where she emerged, fleshier, plump, and robust in a salamander’s majesty. Then, Paul, stepping forward, conducted her into the winds of his arms. Uncle Adeiza and his friends scoured the rubble of the old hut for shed skin. It was the best we’d seen it: no one was terribly hurt, although I noticed a large cut on Paul’s forearm the next day.

We were not so lucky the next time.

It was sometime in September, around the time Paul was returning to college for the second half of his first year. She’d dropped out of school altogether two years before when she had scared the other kids out of an entire academic term. That day, she was up near the teacher’s desk, collecting her report sheet. Next thing, she became this giant insect with tentacles large enough to encircle half the class. The commotion which followed drew my attention and I scurried off to find Paul, who was then in his last class of Senior Secondary.

By the time we got there, the class had emptied of students and teacher, and the lockers were all tumbled out on the floor. From the window, Paul tucked both index fingers into his ears and screamed her name again and again while I chased bystanders away: it’s not a circus, ugly fools, go away! When she finally came to, when it decided to let her go, she crumbled to the floor, crying, and Paul did his wind vane thing and carried her home. That was when he got the large scar behind his right ear. Even though she didn’t return to school, forbidden by the management for a term, many parents waited another term to make sure before enrolling their children. While she stayed home, I faced the jeers and sniggers and everything else; sometimes, I imagine my classmates backed off from fighting me because they feared I might have it too.

Aunty Jemisin, me, Jane and Adayi Hwache were seeing Paul off to the bus station two villages away. The women were ahead of us while I situated myself between the men. Aunty Jemisin had shared something funny and they were both laughing when suddenly her laughter throated real deep, became something like thirty lorries honking all at once. Within seconds, a black thickly wing grew out of her shoulders and the one which sprouted on her right shunted aunty Jemisin violently into the shrubs, as she was propelled skywards. Paul, putting his needs above hers for once, listened to us and went the rest of the trip alone. Aunty Jemisin broke two ribs and she had to have her neck massaged morning and night for three weeks.

When Paul returned two months later, he told us he’d learnt about hallucinations and delusions, words which described only a few of her daily routine. Then he said something about (Catatonia?) and that he thought the omahonors greatly escalated her condition by treating something they didn’t even have a name for. Nonsense, aunty Jemisin shouted, clapping her thighs and craning her neck forward. How else do you think she has managed to keep intact after everything? Paul said nothing. Jane beamed a smile and it dribbled around the room. Everyone in the room looked at her and perhaps saw a victim who was slowly being tortured and teased and destroyed by forces that were implacable and pitiless and that could not be understood. I saw a young woman who knew someone was standing up for her.

So, what is the cure for, eh, that one your wise college people suggested? Adayi Hwache said, spitting out a rotten tube of kolanut. Paul looked at Jane, gave an unconvincing scratch to his head and said something about ‘clinical trials’ and some other phrase which came out as non-treatment, while however insisting the omahonors complicated it greatly. Everyone shot him looks which bent his starched shirt a little, except Jane, who felt the moment appropriate for a loud clap of hand and feet.

Apparently, Paul was so convinced of the detrimental consequences of the medication that he emptied out Jane’s cabinet. I only discovered when aunty Jemisin told me to fetch the medication and I found an empty shelf. Instinctively knowing what had happened, I told her Jane had been spoon-fed it minutes ago, to which Jane gave a frenzied nod. That night, hours after she skipped the medication, she showed me something she’d drawn: one, a near-perfect depiction of her after a bout; the other, a terrifying thing, shapeless, dark and sketchy. At best it looked like a thousand finger scratches on a chalkboard. Then she took a pen and crossed an X over the latter, smiling as she did it. I told Paul what I did and what Jane had done afterwards. He made me promise to destroy the roots and trees they cooked for her when he returned to school. He then told her, in my presence, if Mother asks for your medication, tell her you’ve finished it. The next day, another omahonor, a different one, brought a bag of them and I collected it from him.

Together, Jane and I, we poured the dark liquids through our window and filled it with stale tangerine juice which left a bitter taste always. She smiled, for a long time, even allowed a short, soft laugh. We fist-bumped, something Paul taught us, and she became this strangely normal person. We clapped each other’s backs like comrades. She asked for my hand, I stretched it, she took it, and dragged me out into the rain. We’d been indoors so long I didn’t even hear it begin to rain.

We danced and she bested me at it. We sucked in heaven’s tears joyfully. We let the torrents soak and join our clothes to our bodies, daring the cold to do its worst. Later, while we dried our clothes, she whispered, I am glad. I am very glad. Her gladness stoked my gladness, but I let her have the moment by not saying anything. She seemed vastly improved in spirit. Her mood took the form of a young new bride; a blush here, a tender frown there, a thin giggle, a slender hand wipe across the brow. The medicine, it seemed, was in avoiding the medicine. While her skin lost a bit of sallow and the skin concealing her pimpled areas caved in, her happiness compensated greatly. We sat around a dull hearth and tried to count from one to one thousand. She slept off at five hundred and twelve.

Two weeks later, half the village converged on our house. Smoke escaped the fireplace into the sky, fighting and at once dancing with the morning air. The scent of tapioca ambushed our noses. There was more burning meat than air in the atmosphere. The clouds traced the sky. A dense fog clawed the grass, the hills and river banks, as if foreshadowing a banshee. The children and their mothers appeared to be immersed in it with their legs hidden behind their knees. The women sang songs and vibrated wide hips. The children scurried after meat and chanted louder than their mothers. Thwarted on the last occasion by Jane’s devils, One Blow and his clansmen were visiting again.

Men came in small groups, arms folded in an important way, ignoring their excited wives.

The choreography was distant and near, united and chaotic. A pale new wife from the next compound balanced a bucket of uncooked rice on her small head; a tall, ugly boy with a giraffe’s neck chased the younger boys; a neighbor’s dog clattered after a bone; two thickly-beaked fowls made small talk; an old man tried again and again to light his pipe; a mad man played the sores on his arms like a banjo; young girls my sister’s age swung their mother’s hips and clapped their lips endlessly. From our house, I watched the chaos become taller as more people arrived.

I looked at Jane and found her face cloudy with barbaric happiness. Of course I knew it had little or nothing to do with the visitors being expected. She was simply recovering herself, rescuing herself, in fragments. It had been fifteen days since she stopped taking the destructive potions. A lone tear slinked down her left cheek, a tear that if one tasted, would be pineapple, lime, and joy. She wore aunty Jemisin’s burgundy sari, which did nothing for her lovely frame. Her teeth were diamonds and their brightness complimented the strip of pea green jewelry which ringed her slim neck. Every once again, she reached for it and fondled it, as if making certain it was still there. Her eyes were bedewing with gratitude. Her lips were aflutter and peach and risible.

After sometime, the door creaked towards us and aunty Jemisin bounded into the room, a gray-bearded omahonor in tow. He was the same man who brought her last medication, the ones we both fed the bushes. To our horror, Jane and I, he had a large bottle in his right hand. You have your mother’s beauty, aunty Jemisin was saying, twirling the strand of hair which dropped over Jane’s forehead. The omahonor nodded his agreement. Oremeyi, she added tenderly, taking Jane’s hands, her cheeks turning hue. Jane looked to me for translation. The one that pleases my eye, I told her. Jane parted her lips momentarily and kept her eyes on the omahonor’s right hand. Has she taken her medication today? I nodded. Good, this helps us, she said to the omahonor. Then he stretched out his wiry hand and produced the bottle. This, he said, is even stronger than the one I prepared last time. And you see how it has worked better than anything they’ve ever given you.

I wanted to elevate my fists and box his elf ears. I wanted to yell ‘you liar, your potions only make it worse, all of you’. You must take this one, Oremeyi. Your in-laws will soon be here and . . . the rest of it hung in her throat.

She was not a bad person at all, aunty Jemisin, and no matter how far misguided her belief in the omahonor’s potions was, she would not say an unkind word to Jane. For her sister’s daughter was her daughter and her sister’s husband her husband. Paul, who was seven when she ‘died’ giving me life, told us. Nobody knew why our mother passed it on to Jane, but Paul said she was better after she became uncle Adeiza’s wife. She gave a loud cry after the women wrapped me, and she boarded the skies in a giant bird’s form.

Jane looked from the bottle to me and back to the bottle. She shook her head in strong fervor and gritted her teeth. She drew back her hand from aunty Jemisin’s and stretched it past the the befuddled omahonor towards me. I inched forward, not sure if I should punch the man or speak first. Aunty Jemisin looked defeated and flat and glittering with grief. For her sake, I restrained my fist and engaged my mouth. I’ll make sure she takes it, I said, stretching for the bottle. Jane bowed her neck the other way and beat me with her eyes. I clasped the bottle in my hand. I could’ve broken it right then if I’d returned Jane’s piercing gaze. We’ll be waiting outside, the omahonor finally said. His voice had become utterly demonic, haunting and loud. He chanted his words as though some invisible hand was writing down how many he spoke per time.

When they disappeared behind the door, I looked around the room. There was nowhere to throw it. In our own hut we could easily dispose it in my box or Paul’s, or pour it into the mattress and let it soak it then take it out to dry later. But here in the new hut uncle Adeiza was building over the ruins of the guest hut, the ground was bare and the walls were blushing. If we threw the dark liquid against either surface, it might be discovered shortly. The window behind us was not much help; it could be seen from the open hatch where the women cooked. I put the bottle down and crouched, leaning near the door. I could hear the soft shuffle of feet and hushed conversation. They had not moved away.

Bereft of options and ideas, I seriously considered the wisdom of exposing the omahonor by emptying his concoction down my throat. But I turned around too late, much too late. Whatever was speaking to her had pushed her forward, grabbed the bottle and forced its contents down her throat. The look she gave me told me she knew as much as I did about what had happened; she was still expecting a decision to be made about how best to dispose the bottle’s contents anywhere but her insides. She just sat there very sweet and innocent of everything so that you were only convinced otherwise by the grey droplets which clung to the edges of her mouth. Just then, the door opened behind me and she whispered into my ears: your demons are here. A chill surged down my spine.

I spun around to find the omahonor wide-eyed and smug. Aunty Jemisin’s eyes danced between Jane and the empty bottle, the choreography of guilt and love between mother and daughter. Evil comes from those who lay claim to extreme goodness, Jane said, inspecting her feet. If I hadn’t seen her lips move, I’d have sworn by anything she did not just speak out loud. Only the truly mad can be so sane, the omahonor whispered at my aunt. I narrowed my eyes at him. His eyes betrayed a kind of harmful love. The way a soldier loves his enemy, moved by a curious sense of sin that is present in them both, finally evident in the squeeze of the trigger and the thrust of the jack-knife. The man deserved pity, he and the villagers who fell for his antics. He produced another bottle from his antelope-skin bag. Here, you’re turning faint, have some water. I shoved his hand aside. She’ll pee all over her in-laws at this rate, I said, firm. She doesn’t need any more liquid. He started to shoot me a look then thought better of it and let his hideous cheeks fold into a grandfather’s death-bed smile. Aunty Jemisin was uprooted, but recovered herself quickly, and agreed with me. Jane, still engrossed with her feet, was twirling her toes and nodding for pleasure, like an independent robot. The man idled here and there. Aunty Jemisin swerved and tucked in her perfect head gear. They were still waiting for her, I realized. I told aunty Jemisin to leave us, that I would come out together with Jane when she was ready.

She didn’t look up until they’d closed the door behind them. Only one of them is a demon, I said to her. She shook her head. Aunty Jemisin, for all her beliefs, would never hurt you, or me, or Paul. She looked away. I patted her shoulder, squeezed it and continued: today is the day you should be happiest, and my saddest. By now I had rubbed my elbows all over the floor so that there was no difference between it and the ground we sat on.

She suddenly broke into a song, in a voice which seemed to emerge from outside her throat. The voice could have been early November rains pelting a new zinc roof. There was no identifiable rhythm to the song so I’m not sure that its first composer did not have his own troubles, but she seemed overtaken by the sound of it; as though she and I were both listening to a third person sing it to us. She believed so much in the authenticity of the sound that she blasted the words through me, through the wall, into the waiting assembly outside. The song itself sounded like something young girls with tangerine breasts would clap and dance to in a circle on a moon-lit evening. Then again, it sounded like what masquerade followers would throat in raspy, sand-papery evening voices, as they wielded long canes and chased aftr their masked ancestors.

Our village did not permit masquerades, unlike the other eighteen villages. Our ancestors believed dead men farmed or hunted in the lands beneath our feet and had no spare energy or time to frighten living men. But that was not the only thing we did different from them. Our marriage rites also separated us from everyone else. When a man from our village wished to marry outside, he submitted to whatever his bride’s culture imposed. Likewise, when men came from other villages for our women, we dealt them the hand we lived and believed.

There are no second visits for first daughters. Once a suitor visited and brought along his kinsmen, satisfied his bride’s family, the traditional council and the bride herself (in that order), he took her with him. If she was a second or third daughter, he and his people would be asked to prepare for a second or third trip, depending on a lot of things which the bride didn’t establish or control. And if a man married a second daughter, when she died, an unmarried third or first daughter in his wife’s family became his wife. If a man, an unmarried man, came into possession of his brother’s estate, his family came with it. Like it was with my father, a well-liked chief, mother and aunty Jemisin. He’d died after Jane’s birth and when his estate passed onto his brother, his wife and two children did. When, six years later, she ‘passed’ giving birth to me, her unmarried older sister was added to his estate. So, by arrangements outside their own will, they had come to be husband and wife, father and mother. I still marvel at how they lived as though they had long admired each other since childhood.

It was Paul who first came to tell us that they, both families, had settled terms and they were asking to be shown this beauty, famous through all nineteen villages. Then Adayi Hwache came to fetch her himself when it became clear after another hour had passed that she wasn’t coming out. He insisted the visitors were getting rather impatient. Aunty Jemisin came three times. Uncle Adeiza sent other emissaries who knocked and knocked. She kept whispering things and jerking forward every now and then. I knew the omahonor’s potion was responsible and something terrible was on the way, and I wanted to go outside and bend the old man’s neck, but I dared not leave her by herself. I reasoned that the forces gathering within her would not make an appearance under my watch. By now, she’d broken into bursts of dark, senile laughter.

No one knocked again.

The door simply opened and a large shadow, one of a mountain crouching, appeared. There was no doubt who had appeared this time. It would be spoken of for generations to come, across all nineteen villages, that the great One Blow Seven Die had been turned away by a woman he dragged his clansmen through five villages to seek. And whenever a great tale was recounted of his exploits, the bit about how he was rejected would stick out. It might even be spoken of as his greatest failure. He couldn’t let that happen. He’d damned the consequences and come to collect his new wife.

As I twisted to catch the sight of this man-mountain, the laughs behind me rocked a new tone. One Blow Seven Die advanced anyway and stretched a huge hand towards her. Maybe the darkness within her was drawn by the brave, unyielding advance of a mortal. And maybe it showed fear, just a little fear. She gave a kind of yee-haw and a shadow which eclipsed One Blow Seven Die’s from before, rose and covered the room. Between them, I became the proverbial grass upon which the misery of two duelling elephants is heaped. Before I could move another step, there was a massive wind and a smattering of the new walls and loud non-human coughing.

Then, the evening sky became available to me, as much as it was to the assembly outside, and I realized the hut had come apart and I was alone, unmoving and planted in the rubble. In fact, suddenly, everywhere once dark and inside was now hot air and outside. When I looked up at the sky, a huge bird, the biggest one I’d ever seen, was shifting the position of the sky and from it hung a white little thing, bigger than a star, like the biggest bird shit ever, stuck on its anus, which I then realized was One Blow Seven Die, tugging away, clinging, safe or unsafe, to his new wife, steering her, I imagine, towards the village of Aayi, whose inhabitants were soon to recieve a new wife in a manner they’d never welcomed one before.