He returns to the thatched-roofed huts and road-carved forests of his village. He was only sixteen when he departed, a bag of tattered shirts in tow. The whisperers said the city would consume him–only fools chase after happy endings. Now, glass skyscrapers bear his name. But he is lured home by a force far greater than wealth, all the world’s money diminished in its light.
The First Wife
On the drive to the village, she traces planets and moons on The Husband’s knee, sings to him about a colorful future: they have ten children, six boys and four girls; their house boasts crayon-painted walls and broken vases and endless love; they live for centuries. She is too distracted to notice when he glances at her, teary-eyed, grateful, enraptured.
The Mother (-in-Law)
She cries at the feet of The Husband. Squeals in delight over his baskets of gifts: yam tubers, garden eggs, prickly-scented peppers, velvet wrappers bejeweled with tiny stars. He has brought love too, the future bearer of her grandchildren. The Mother takes one look at The First Wife, the stranger from distant lands, and immediately, passionately loathes her. Her coy smile and the presumption of her hugs and the secrets buried in that accent when she says, “Good evening, Mama.” The Mother knows that she is a witch sent by green-eyed enemies to undo her son’s success.
He lives on the village’s edge, where the treetops cluster so thickly that night is eternal. He sits bare-chested, unknown symbols sunken in his skin, his shrine enclosed by black sheets. He offers The Mother’s offerings to the great god Agwo Mmo: a calabash of rat’s blood, feathers from a barren white hen, crushed kola nuts, and strands of gray hair.The tar-soaked skies crackle with lightning. Agwo Mmo is pleased. But there is, as always, a cost for the request, claimed when the god so chooses. The Mother accepts this condition. Tears of gratitude blaze her eyes red.
The Second Wife
She moves into The Husband’s home one month later. They burn The First Wife’s old things together, the heat from reddish flames like medicine, disintegrating traces of old poisons. She bows her head in deference when he speaks, replies in his native tongue, the Rs and Ls rolled the right way. On some mornings, the rising birds caw, and The Husband gets a look in his eyes as if their song has resurrected a dead thing. She submits her body to him then, presses skin on skin until he is hers again.
The First Wife’s Mother
She listens solemnly as her daughter recounts the final weeks of that cursed marriage. How The Husband started to vomit at the taste of her cooking. How he slept on the living room sofa to avoid her skin’s graze. Even the very air rippled with strange currents so that her hairs rose and her teeth chattered in the afternoon heat. On the last day, he threatened to crack her jaw against granite. She walked out of the house, never looked back. But I’m okay, her daughter insists, her face whipped into stone as she sets about the day’s chores. But late at night, The First Wife’s Mother is pulled out of slumber by the strain of her daughter’s voice. It is fractured in the sorrows of her new song–i hapuru mu, your soul has deserted mine.
The Second Wife’s Baby
It rests on a cushion of amniotic fluid, passing its days between slumber and restless observation. The world is not yet tinged with light, but there is much to be discovered in listening. Promises whispered. Echoes of slow music. The tap-tap-tap of gentle, wondering fingers on the wall between here, smaller every day, and there, the infinity of high grass, the sun-cooked skins of legged insects. But the light never comes. Instead, there is a fading of sounds, a slow tapering of stimuli, until one day when there is nothing at all.
She screams when she pulls The Baby out of The Second Wife. It is not like any child she has ever seen. It is glassy-eyed and fanged and eight feet long, coiled and dead and dangling from the shuddering grip of blood-soaked gloves. The Nurse loses all the breath in her body. She staggers one way, then the other, then collapses on the ground.
He hears about the unnatural birth from a Reverend Sister–how The Second Wife shrieked unintelligibly before drawing her last breath, how all the children in the hospital started weeping in synchrony. He knows which gods help the flowers bloom in dry seasons and which gods claim new souls in exchange for the heart’s desires. He gathers his bible and his aged wooden rosary, praying on the drive over that he is not too late.
They talk about it for years. As they fill their buckets in glittering cliff-side streams, they reminisce about how the curse was broken; some say The Priest simply thumped a cross against The Husband’s forehead; others insist he placed a bible on The Husband’s chest, just above the section of a heart where love is stored. Over the market trading of crayfish and goatskin, they lament the spiritual madness that possessed The Mother afterward. How, before her mind collapsed on itself, she rattled on the floor and confessed her sins. On some nights, when the moon is scarcely larger than a fingernail, they hear her wandering the dusty roads, muttering drunkenly about witches and enemies–they will not succeed. They retreat into their beds with the doors locked and the windows shuttered, thinking of a love stolen and reclaimed, The Husband’s profuse pleading at the feet of The First Wife, her graceful forgiveness. They step into midnight dreams newly convinced that come the bright gold of morning, their happy endings may follow too.
Vincent Anioke is a software engineer at Google. He was born and raised in Nigeria, but now lives in Canada. His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Carve Magazine, Pithead Chapel, and Callaloo, among others. He was also a fiction finalist at the 2020 Thomas Morton Memorial Prize for Literary Excellence. Find him on Twitter at @AniokeVincent.