It is a story about love and marriage, and about how an impressionable woman becomes ‘born again’ in an unequal union.
HER NAME WAS NNEOMA, Good Mother, but Obinze liked to call her Obim. She was, literally, his heart, he said. She liked it, the way his voice would soften whenever he called her that. ‘Obim, this is the best ukwa I have ever eaten,’ he would say, and she would smile and bat her eyelids at him. At night, when they were in bed together, he would touch her in places that made her giggle, and when he was finally in her, he would mutter ‘Obim, Obim,’ and afterwards he would ask if she had liked it. She would smile shyly and nod her head, yes, even on those nights when he got there before she did, even on those nights when she pressed her legs together and fought desperately not to touch herself.
She liked to think that she was lucky, having a man like him. She liked to think that he was her knight in shiny amour, the knight who had rescued her from the monotony of village life, from walking miles every morning to fetch water from the muddy stream. He had introduced her to the world of rectangular televisions, televisions so flat, she thought they would break if she touched them too roughly. He had introduced her to gas cookers and to microwaves. ‘Stop being a village girl,’ he had said when she refused to use the gas cooker. ‘Who told you it would explode and burn down the house?’ And he had gone ahead to show her how to put it on and off. She got to like the gas cooker because it did not blacken her new pots, although she sometimes missed cooking with firewood.
There were so many other things that she missed, like the noise of little children playing and shouting insults at one another. She missed also the greenery, that sense of calm that came with the bushes around, that infinite bliss. And she missed, especially, Obinze’s voice whenever he left for work in the morning. She would clean and re-clean, she would cook, she would sleep, she would wake up, and she would watch Nollywood TV. But no matter how much she missed, she never told him anything. Their relationship was a peculiar one, one in which he did most of the talking, and she did most of the listening. There were many things she would like to tell him, but she was afraid of saying the wrong things. She was afraid of spoiling this little miracle that had happened to her. And so she always remained quiet about those things, those very important things, like not getting there when he did.
She first began to notice the changes in him after he told her to prepare for JAMB. ‘You’re going to BUK,’ he said. ‘You need to be a graduate. You need to upgrade.’ There was a patronizing quality to his voice, a quality she had heard before, but had always ignored. She said yes, that she would prepare for JAMB. She did not tell him that she could not start reading again after so many years. She did not tell him that their marriage was almost a year old, and that they should be thinking about children that would come, and not about university. She did not even tell him about not seeing her blood, about the warmth that had filled her as she stripped in the bedroom and pressed her breasts to see if they were heavy. Instead she smiled, batted he eyelids and went to the kitchen to cry.
He continued to behave strangely, returning late at night, complaining of fatigue, going outside to pick his calls. At first she was afraid, then she became frightened, then it became outright terror. She started to scroll through his phone whenever he was in the bathroom. She would read his text messages and check his call history. No female caller. Somehow the neatness frightened her, the fact that there was no female caller, the possibility that he was being too careful, that he was hiding something from her.
One night she woke up to the sound of his muffled voice. It was a cold night, in the very heart of December. Cold breeze blew into the room through the mosquito netting. She had forgotten to shut the windows. She snuggled under some blankets. She stared at the tinge of yellow light gleaming in the toilet. Obinze was there, in the toilet, and he talked in low tones. When he emerged from the toilet, she saw surprise on his face, and shock. He stood staring at her. Then he smiled. ‘Obim,’ he said. ‘You’re awake.’ He climbed into bed and held her, and later she wondered if it was relief or yearning that swept all the suspicions away, that made her yield to his stirring touch.
The next morning, the harmattan haze filled the sky. She stood in the veranda and stared at the far, far horizon, at the grey film that blurred it. She thought of her life in relation to that horizon, in relation to the mist that had suddenly blurred it. When later that day, she saw the blood trickling down her thighs, she was not surprised. She did not call Obinze before going to the hospital. She did not call him after the doctor examined her and said that the baby was gone. She did not call him after she left the hospital and went to UK’s house. She seemed to be walking in a daze, seeing in parts, nodding her head as UK talked about leaving Obinze. She did not notice that UK had another shade of lipstick on today, a deep purple colour. Of course UK knew that she could not leave Obinze. He was her lifeguard. There was nothing she could do without him. Nothing.
UK reluctantly dropped her off later that night. He was waiting for her outside. ‘Where have you been?’ He asked. She did not reply. She simply walked into the living room and sat in a sofa. He came in too and started pacing up and down. ‘I said, Where have you been?’
‘I lost the baby,’ she said. She was surprised at the casualness with which those words came out, in clear, unwavering Igbo.
He stared accusingly at her. ‘The doctor said it was okay to do it.’ There was suspicion there, in the slight inflection of his voice. His eyes never left her. ‘What happened? What did you do?’
She glanced at him, casually, and looked away. Of course the doctor said it was okay for them to make love. It was not the lovemaking that had killed her baby. It was that other woman, that witch that he was sleeping with behind her back. She wanted to scream those words at him, but her throat felt dry, far too parched to make any sound. His phone rang first. He stared at it. It rang for a while and stopped. Then hers began ringing. She did not pick it. They both stared at the phones on the table. Afterwards he asked, ‘Who was that?’ When she did not answer, he started pacing the living room again, crossing and uncrossing his hands, biting his lips. Then he held her and shook her hard. ‘Who was that?’ he said, between clenched teeth. ‘What did he do to my baby? What has he been doing to you?’
She was shocked at how quickly he had concluded that she was sleeping with someone else. She tried to wriggle out his hold, but it was too firm. Then her tongue unfurled and all the words came tumbling out, in a speed that shocked even her. How dare he accuse her, when his witch girlfriend was responsible? She asked. Who was he to accuse her? She remembered the many times he had teased her about being a village girl, about the many times he had asked her to upgrade, about the many times he had made her wear trousers that were so tight, she felt naked in them. She told him about those many times, and more, like the nights when he left her hanging, like his insensitive snoring while she fought with desire.
He stopped holding her. It seemed like she had thrown him a staggering blow. His mouth moved, as if to say ‘What?’ But he made no sound. Instead he sank into a sofa, far away from her, and buried his face in his hands.
As she stared at him, she thought of how their relationship had always been a peculiar one, of how it would always be a peculiar one. Now, however, it was taking on a new peculiarity. This new peculiarity made her feel born again, so full of hope, so full of faith, like a new wife.