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In his other life, my husband is another woman’s wife. This does not perturb me. What sprinkles fear-flakes on my bones is the dark splotches my husband’s spouse leaves on his brown skin. She makes it obvious. Her catawampus nails burrow deep into the suppleness of my husband’s back, her torrid lips besmirch my husband’s nipples, and her tongue drips lava that scalds my husband’s navel. Every evening, when my husband walks into our bedroom, I am forced to deal with this awareness of sharing him with another person. I struggle not to touch the portions of my husband’s body smeared with dark splotches. The whorls of his navel, the folds of his nape, his nipples, and the curly spread of ginger-colored hair on his chest. I understand they no longer belong to me.
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Ikoro, my husband’s wife, has sworn to make things arduous for me. She does not give half a hoot about my territoriality. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t usually have a problem with sharing. I have been sharing all my life. My mother had seven daughters and, until her skull got crushed on one of her many expeditions to hunt albatrosses, she shared her love among us. Each day of the week was reserved for a daughter. As the eldest, Monday was my day and my curfew was extended to 11:00 PM, Ginika was allowed an extra helping of jollof rice and grilled pork on Tuesday, Owanne could go swimming with the mermaids on Wednesday, Chinwe danced with the shirtless boys on Tarkwa Beach every Thursday, Ify could wear miniskirts on Friday, Ujunwa was exempted from house chores on Saturday, and Obiageli went for her singing classes on Sunday. But these days, I have begun to loathe the idea of sharing, especially sharing a husband. Last Friday, I came back from a Town Council meeting to find my husband on the bed, his body livid with dark splotches. This repeated show of possessiveness by my husband’s wife nauseates me.
As time slips past, the dark splotches on my husband’s skin spread like the seaweeds beside River Bambu. Before this month runs out, my husband’s palms and soles will be the only thing left for me to caress unless I swallow my pride and caress those parts taken away from me, claimed by my husband’s wife, and the thought of this makes my heart’s rhythm turn dull and leaden.
“What is love with just palms and soles?” I ask Mba. Mba droops her shaggy tail: a way of saying A love that sucks.
My husband is not like the ones you see around with bulgy muscles, trimmed beards, coarse lips, square shoulders, and sturdy feet. He has exquisitely contoured eyebrows, jasmine-scented lips, a raspy voice, feeble arms, and tender skin. He does not sit with an abandoned masculine ease, legs astride. He sits stiffly on a chair, with a straight back and his knees glued together. My husband does not join the company of men at Quidi Bar who stay up late, downing shots of local gin and bragging about the number of women they’ve bedded. Instead, he enjoys the tranquility of Ekan Hill, where he spends some evenings watching the setting sun graze the hill’s peak.
“Sometimes, I need a man who is wild and untamed, but I am not complaining.” My voice thins to a whisper. Mba gnaws at the serrated edge of her wheat cracker: a way of saying You are complaining.
Lately, my husband has started allowing me to make all the decisions in the house: the petals for our anniversary decoration, the type of primrose for our garden, the brocade material for sewing the curtains, the mahogany for the banister, and the wool for weaving the new rug. He has stopped whining about the thin mesh of cobwebs strung across the ceiling or when I forget to do the dishes.
“Sometimes it seems like I don’t even have a husband.” I wipe off the teardrop hanging on my left eyelash. Mba flutters her eyelids: a way of saying Sometimes or all the time?
In my world, to marry is to begin living two lives. During the day, I am Chime, a married woman with four children carved out of matchsticks. At night, I am Dime, a man married to Felicity, a pink-haired hippie who does not stay at home much. During the day, my husband is Ping, a dragon-poacher’s wife. At night, he becomes Ding—my husband, who insists that I put our children in the matchbox every evening before he comes home because their brown heads make him puke. I don’t tell Felicity to put away our children when I am Dime. The last thing I feel like is puking when they hop on my back and make me gallop like a horse around the house. I feel loved. They are cute little things, though soon they’ll be too grown up enjoy horse rides on my back.
It’s still morning. My husband is lying on our four-poster bed. In his eyes I see a blurry image of him as Ping running around a rice field with Ikoro, who catches up, scoops her up, and starts nuzzling her face. The image is clearer now. Ping is wearing cowrie-strung braids and gold-plated filigree earrings. The sand-brown braids are sharp and defined against her black skin. Wait, is the gap between her front teeth widening? Is that a tattoo or another scar on her ankle? I look away as the dragon-poacher rips the chiffon gown off Ping. Soon, they will be lying among the green rice stalks making wild passionate love.
I unzip Ding’s skin. Steam escapes from his ribs. I run my fingers along the sliminess of his diaphragm. He jerks. I rush out of the bedroom to the kitchen to wash my hands.
“Pair of show-offs,” I curse in my throat as I scrub my hands clean under the tepid sink-water. Mba giggles: a way of saying You’ve got no guts for that.
Sometimes it is hard to fault Ding’s behaviour. Ping just married the dragon-poacher a year ago. They are still new in love, like Ding and I used to be. Not anymore. These days, Ding has stopped staring at my body and rearing up with envy when I go to be with my wife. He is too moony from the languorous days of soaking up ecstasies on a rice field to notice the trivialities in my life.
“This is how these things work out.” Mba curls up my left foot: a way of saying Are you just realizing?
This evening, after my husband slides into me—before I become Dime and leave—I will let him know the ramblings of my heart. I will tell him how I crave for him to compliment my new cornrows and the embroidery I do for his caftans. I want him to know the children miss calling him Baba because they are stuffed in the matchbox when he is around. I will ask him to recall the last time we took long evening walks on Bridge Gringo or played Catching the Sunset like real lovers.
“What is the worst that will happen? He’ll smile, tell me he loves me and everything will return to finery.” I roll my eyes at Mba, who strolls out of the kitchen: a way of saying You know things don’t work out this way. And I know then that I won’t say it, because what if he says something else? The worst could be so much worse.
Ikem, my last child, hobbles into the kitchen. A flail is chained to his left ankle. At four, Ikem is always easy prey for his siblings’ mischievousness. Two months back they told him to climb the roof if he wanted to pluck stars from the sky. Last week, they told him to light a fire above his head if he wanted to grow taller.
“Momma, look, I am a warrior,” Ikem says.
He pulls out a sword and waves it at an invisible enemy. He drags the flail along to the food shelf, where he snatches the last packet of coconut candy and wolfs it down in two gulps. The flail leaves a trail of scars on the kitchen floor which reminds me of the marks the dragon-poacher’s fingernails leave on my husband’s skin. A slight wooziness shrouds my eyes and my legs begin to melt like lit candles.
“Stop it!” I shriek, unwrapping the flail off Ikem’s ankle.
“Now I will never become a warrior. Bad Momma!” Ikem slumps on the kitchen floor and starts writhing like an earthworm muddled in salt.
“No. Bad Momma!”
I grab Ikem’s arm and drag him out of the kitchen. “Ada, Nedu, and Okwui! Come right out.”
“If you scold them, I will never become a warrior.”
My other children tiptoe out of the bedroom where, I’m sure, they have been eavesdropping.
“Momma.” Ada, the eldest, speaks first. Her bold eyes and pouty mouth would have matched mine years ago. That was before I degenerated into this timorous woman who is scared of talking some sense into a dragon-poacher.
“Whose idea was this?” The corners of my mouth constrict.
“He wanted to be a warrior,” Nedu says and bites his lips to suppress his laughter.
“And we made him a warrior,” Okwui chips in. Okwui dwells in the shadow of his twin brother, always finishing Nedu’s sentences.
“Please don’t spank them, Momma,” Ikem pleads.
“No, they are going to have a cold bath for upsetting my day.”
Children like mine who are carved out of matchsticks dread bathing because it leaves them soaked and exhausted for hours. I fill the bathtub with cold water and make sure Ada, Nedu, and Okwui sponge until their skins crinkle like new paper. They step out of the bathtub and huddle against each other to keep warm. I go back to the parlor, where Ikem is fast asleep on the couch. At least Ikem’s sleeping and his siblings’ after-bath fever will buy me a few hours of peace.
My heart’s rhythm is duller than ever. On days like this it feels like it’s barely beating.
I throw on a faded blue gown and go over Aunty Ukamaka’s shop to collect the laundry. Aunty Ukamaka’s shop is just across the street, sandwiched between Iya Bola’s Restaurant and Okey’s Boutique. A popular town joke says if Iya Bola’s oily broth stains your clothes, you can either launder them at Aunty Ukamaka’s or buy new ones from Okey’s. Aunty Ukamaka has been around since forever. She laundered my mother’s, grandmother’s, and great-grandmother’s clothes. I still go to her, even with the new laundromats scattered around Ogbete Market, because no one takes extra care of necklines and the brown rings around the armpit region of clothes better than Aunty Ukamaka.
Aunty Ukamaka is scrubbing a brown cardigan when I walk into the shop, a light splatter of tiny, white bubbles on her face. She wipes her hands on her blouse and offers me a seat.
“Chime, your lips look chapped. Would you like to drink orange juice?” Aunty Ukamaka asks in a typical customer-is-the-soul-of-business tone. She turns the cardigan inside out and continues scrubbing.
“Of course,” I say.
“I ran out of orange juice three months ago.” Aunty Ukamaka brushes off a sud on the tip of her nose. “Would you try a cup of soda then?”
“If you insist.” I stiffen my face to hide the irritation burning inside my cheeks.
“Eish, there is no soda.” Aunty Ukamaka folds the cardigan and dumps into a rinsing-bucket. “How about a glass of water?”
“No water. I win!”
The woman claps her hands and does a little tap-tap dance. It is now I realize Aunty Ukamaka was playing a game called What do you want? A game she invented herself. The last time Aunty Ukamaka and I played What do you want? was when I wanted to get married. She offered me bean-cakes, mashed potatoes, and omelet, all of which I said yes to. According to Aunty Ukamaka, the essence of the game is to teach me how to refuse offers.
“Marriage is like an offer. It compels one to exist in two different worlds. Can you really handle that much trouble?” Aunty Ukamaka said after the game.
That was sixteen years ago.
“And you have still not learnt how to refuse offers,” Aunty Ukamaka says now. She is smiling, dimples deepening on her cheeks.
“I was playing along. I wanted you to win.”
“Nobody plays along in What do you want? You lost straight out.”
“Fine, you win. Is my laundry ready?”
“Yes. It’s on top of the shelf.” Aunty Ukamaka points.
“Are we playing a game?” Aunty Ukamaka stares in bemusement while I collect the basket containing my freshly laundered clothes.
“Yes. It is a new game called Is my laundry ready?” I say as I close the door behind me.
My kitchen is alive with spices in the evenings: thyme, turmeric, curry, and nutmeg. I open the windows to clear the cloud of smoke and let in fresh air. Shredded greens, chopped onions, and ground tomatoes are strewn on the floor, on the table and in the sink. I pour the mashed liver, marinating in Cameroon pepper sauce, into the saucepan. The onions, tomatoes, and green peppers continue to sizzle in the vegetable oil. I drum my fingers on the chopping board as the mashed liver simmers in the saucepan. After cooking, I soak the used pots, bowls, and spoons in soapy water.
All this is a huge waste of time. Ding barely touches my food. He will always leave it on the porch for the damned bats.
Ada runs into the kitchen, with Mba tagging along, when I’m just done drying my hands. She tears open a sachet of Adole Liver Salts, pours it into a glass, dissolves it with the water from the dispenser, and gulps it down.
“What time is he coming tonight?” Ada’s voice reeks of something familiar and strange at the same time.
“Are you alright?” I brush aside Ada’s question with another question.
“Cramps,” Ada replies brusquely. “Why doesn’t he want to see us?”
“Have you taken aspirin?”
“I have. Stop trying to ignore me.”
I lean against the wall and look my daughter over. She is sixteen and two years away from the age of glory when she can marry and exist in two divergent worlds. It’s just like a nanosecond ago when Ada turned twelve and I helped her place ice on her swelling nipples. Time is a swift-passing shadow.
“You know, Aunty Ukamaka is right. Marriage transforms people into something else.” Ada cuts in, interrupting my train of thoughts. “I really don’t have the muscle for all that drama.”
“Have you been speaking to Aunty Ukamaka?” I struggle not to sound horrified. People who don’t marry are seen as outlaws. They have few friends and will die alone and unloved. “Marriage is like … a conglomerate of … a mixed bag …” I try to tell Ada but the words refuse to form in my mouth.
Mba climbs on the kitchen table and tips over the pot of mashed liver sauce, spilling the thick, dark grey liquid on the floor. I grab a rag and a bucket and start cleaning the mess. Mba squeezes herself between Ada’s legs. The cat’s eyes are lit with a phantasmal glow: a way of saying I did this on purpose.
“Let me get you vinegar for the oil stain,” Ada offers.
“No. Take your siblings into the matchbox and don’t come out until I come back in the morning.”
“My bowl of mashed liver sauce is empty,” Ding says.
“Maybe the bats have eaten it.”
Ding does not reply. He picks up a book from the bedside table and his face remains blank as he sifts through the pages. Deep down, I am grateful that Mba spilled the mashed liver sauce.
I undress and catwalk toward Ding. He stirs—a weak stir but still a stir. His palms are cold when they cup my breasts. This coldness endures as he guides me to the bed and lies on top of me. Our bodies refuse to meld into each other. Ding’s scars jab against my skin. The coldness continues. It is only when he thrusts in that I feel a faint warmth. Before my insides can nurture the warmth into fire, he slips out. He exhales, lies on his back, and just like that—Wham! Bam!—drifts off to sleep. His chest rises and falls and this makes me wonder if our children are breathing fine in the matchbox.
“Ding, we need to talk.” I nudge his shoulder. He mumbles gibberish and dozes off again. I will have to talk to him later, maybe in the morning. It’s already time for me to become Dime.
“Watch where you’re going, dumb-fuck!” a rickshaw driver hollers, and I step into the gutter to avoid being rammed.
The gutter is brimful with moldy bread and half-drunk soda cans and used blood bags and pig bladders and every other junk a gutter should contain. I mumble an apology to the rickshaw driver who does not seem to care; he’s already moved past, hurling insults as he went.
“Dime, is that you?” a voice inquires as I turn onto the street where my hippie wife lives. It is Shuku. She is sitting on a mat in front of her house. A basin is cradled on her lap. In the evenings, Shuku sells hair extensions woven with bat fur. I walk past her every evening, but I don’t know a thing about her spouses or who she is in her other life. Some things are better left unearthed.
“How has it been?” I try as much as possible not to sound too concerned.
“I am catching the evening dew. It gives sweet dreams. You can try it. Just a few drops in your eyes and you’d be dreaming in rainbows.”
“I’ll pass,” I say and walk away.
In eleven years of being married to Felicity, I have succeeded in turning down every attempt Shuku makes for us to become friends. If I have learnt anything from having two lives, it is that you should not be too attached to people in your different lives and to keep acquaintances superficial. That way, the lives will not bleed into each other.
Nime, Filo, and Ujam are playing Lego on the balcony when I get to my house.
“Baba is here!” Nime, Filo, and Ujam squeal as they see me.
They push the plastic Lego blocks aside, run to open the door, and hug me so tightly I fear my back will snap.
“Did you buy kwilikwili for us?” they chorus.
Their mouths sag when I say no. Maybe I could afford treats more often if Felicity didn’t spend so much of our money throwing wild parties. Of course, I say this in my head. You do not say such things about your wife in the presence of your children or they will start taking sides.
Felicity is not at home and the house is in utter disarray. Not that it is any better when she is around. The children had stacked all the chairs and tables for their Mountain Game in the parlor. I untie Ujam’s wooden doll hanging on the ceiling fan, put back the chairs and tables in their right place, and fold the dirty clothes heaped on the floor. Tonight, my children are not too much trouble except for when Ujam lights a match on the rug. Filo sees it in time and puts it out with water. Nime scolds Ujam who begins to cry and I sling him across my shoulder to make him stop crying.
The night is far spent and Felicity is not yet home, so I take the children to the kitchen to cook dinner. Bean porridge spiced with scent-leaf. I dish out the food and we carry our plates to the dining table. Nime, the eldest, between licking porridge off his fork, talks about a girl he thinks he likes. I chuckle and almost send pepper down the wrong way. Nime frowns.
“No, I wasn’t laughing at you. It’s just that you are growing up so fast and Baba still can’t imagine you are having a crush on someone,” I explain. This time, I suppress my laughter.
“Baba, what’s a crush?” Ujam asks.
“A kind of food.” I blink twice to let the lie settle.
Filo says he met Pa Gragra in the morning to teach him how to read people’s minds. I cringe. Having a child who can read minds is better imagined than experienced. I will have to walk around Filo with my thoughts open to him like those steaming pots of rice displayed on the counter at Iya Bola’s restaurant.
“Who did you tell before going?”
“Mama said I could go.”
Felicity is always carefree with the children as if it will compensate for all her excesses. This makes me giddy and I will have to choose my words so as not to be the bad parent. “Honey, I know you think it’s cool to read minds but trust me, it’s not. Most people’s minds are filled with those grubs that climb up the toilet pipes when it rains.”
“Ewww!” Filo squeezes his face and feigns wanting to vomit.
Ujam wants to know when he will be allowed to play softball with his brothers. I tell him, as I have done for the past six months that the boy has been pestering me, that he can play tomorrow. Ujam is naive and a part of me prays he remains this way. I don’t know how long it will take before he grows up and starts bothering me about his girl crushes and reading people’s minds.
When we are done eating, I tuck the children in bed and wait for Felicity in the parlor. The house is quiet now. My lungs drink up the stillness around me, as much as they can carry. I unknot the tassels of the curtains and glide into the soothing darkness.
Tiptoe. Tiptoe. Spin and spin and spin. Dance to the tune of silence. Get aboard the spaceship of serendipity. Waltz across the room and tilt the hands of time backwards until it touches the past—a place where my life is not twinned, where the world is so much smaller and I can understand every bit of it. The music drumming inside my chest stops. Someone is calling me.
“Baba, stop dancing, Ujam is reaching!”
Reaching is common in little children like Ujam. The stump of their placenta sprouts roots and the roots begin to reach, tearing their innards until their mothers or any woman who has given birth rubs her navel on the stump. My mother told me that Eledumare handed this law himself to our foremothers to keep all of us in check, to fetter our legs close to our homes. A mother whose child dies of reaching is seen as a failed woman.
I dash out of the house. Only a thin slice of the moon illuminates the night outside. To find Felicity now will be to find a strand of chestnut hair in a haystack. She could be passed out on the floor at Quidi Bar, gyrating on a man’s crotch at Bolingo Square, sprawled on the bench of a tattoo shop in The Place of Outlaws, or swinging from pole to pole at Dare Ridge. On impulse, I rush to Shuku’s house and bang on the door. I don’t know if Shuku has a child of her own, but all I can do now is hope.
“Dime, is that you?” Shuku answers the door as if she has been waiting for me to knock.
“My son is reaching and my wife is not at home.”
Shuku reties the loose wrapper around her waist. “Atibawgu, the man across the street needs my help. His son is reaching.”
“What about his wife?” A sleepy voice inside the house asks.
“She is away.”
“Is it not the same man who feels he is too grand to engage in small talk?”
“You can come out here and ask him yourself.”
Shuku closes the door behind her and asks me to lead the way. Ujam is screaming when we get back to the house. The roots have pierced through his back and anchored to the bed. Shuku pats Ujam’s head before rubbing her navel against his. Ujam stops screaming and the roots retract into his body. The little boy sleeps.
“We are all bodies in transit. The least we can do is to look out for each other because we cannot do it all on our own, no matter how strong we think we are.” Shuku cuts me short when I try to thank her and apologize for being too grand to engage in small talk. “Goodnight, Dime.”
Felicity returns home an hour later. She rattles as she walks into the bedroom. Rusted coins, bent pins, and tiny copper-plates fall from her overstuffed purse. The brass bangles on her right wrist clang on the wine glass she is holding. She smiles, slumps on the bed, and kicks the air like a child stung by a bee.
“My doting husband is awake,” Felicity drawls.
I go over to the bed and help her remove her shoes. She pukes all over my shirt when I try to wring the wine glass out of her hand.
“This,” she smacks her fingernails on the wine glass, “is tomato sauce and unicorn pee. Strong stuff.”
Her grip on the wine glass slackens. I set it on the floor. “Where did you go this time?”
“To the skies.” My wife sways her hands. “You can touch, touch, touch—”
“Ujam reached.” Felicity does not say anything, so I continue. “You didn’t feed the children. The house was a total mess when I came in.”
Felicity sits up. She is a bit sober now. “Get a grip. A drink or two takes me away from this twisted web we are living.”
“Don’t even play the pity card. We all live twinned lives. I still cook and clean the house before coming here and everyone in town knows you don’t lift a finger to help Dinma when you are Naife.” My voice wobbles between rage and things I cannot explain.
Dinma is Felicity’s wife when she is Naife. I have seen her once, on my way to pick up the laundry from Aunty Ukamaka. She rolled her eyes at me when I greeted her and gave me the cold shoulder. Sometimes cross-spouses see each other as competitors. When your marriages have lasted for many years like mine, though, you begin to realize that your cross-spouses are not the problem. Life is the problem.
“What I do in my other life is none of your business!” Felicity grabs the wine glass and splashes its remaining contents on my face. “This is what you get for poking your ugly nose where it’s not wanted. By the way, you are sleeping on the floor tonight.”
“You know, it won’t kill you to take care of our children.”
“Blah, blah, blah. The problem with you is you want everybody to be like you. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.” Felicity hurls her shoes at me, missing by a hair’s breadth. “You want things to be perfect. You want to tell me how to take care of our children. Then you whine in my ears all night about your uncaring husband. Do you get a cookie each time someone spares you an ounce of pity? Fix your problems yourself.”
I shower and then go back to the bedroom to unroll the mat to sleep on. Felicity’s words are like needles on my skin the entire time. All night I toss and turn on the mat, and it seems that barely a few minutes have passed before Felicity pulls up the curtains and tells me it’s already morning.
The house is shiny and neat when I come out of the bathroom. Breakfast is set and Felicity and the children are sitting quietly at the table.
“Dime, we are waiting for you.” Felicity calls from the table.
During breakfast, Felicity and I don’t talk about last night. The unspoken words hover above us. We continue to avoid each other’s eyes after breakfast. Ujam is still weak from last night so I carry him on my shoulder to cheer him up. He tugs at my hair and begs me to stay longer. I tell him no. Life doesn’t allow adults those luxuries. I don’t say the second part to Ujam; you don’t bother children with such things.
“You’re a good husband and, I’m sure as hell, a good wife. Don’t let people take advantage of that,” Felicity says in the bedroom, while I’m becoming Chime again. Felicity is typically late to become Naife, of course. She helps me pick out something from her wardrobe to wear so that Chime won’t have to walk back in Dime’s clothes.
As Chime, I plant a soft kiss on both of Felicity’s cheeks and walk out of the bedroom.
Ding is primping when I get back. It is far into the morning and almost overdue for him to become Ping, at which point he will have to do his eyeliner all over again. I hold myself not to laugh. Ding is always this way every morning, at a loss if he is Ding or Ping.
“You think it’s funny?” Ding asks.
I’m shocked because we do not usually talk when he is about to become Ping. “Yes.” I let out my laughter. “You’re doing it too soon. You’re still Ding. And you’re using up my eyeliner.”
Ding’s eyes widen. “Oh. Well, it’s just makeup.”
Ordinarily I’d grunt and walk away, but Felicity’s last words to me are echoing in my head.
“What’s weird is you can’t tell that you’re still my husband right now,” I say.
“Someone is jealous.”
I scoff. “Jealous? We’ve had our days of young love. I just don’t want to be the only one making sacrifices for your new marriage. I want to stop locking my children in that stuffy matchbox when you are around. I want my children to see their father every night. I want to feel the warmth of the man I married sixteen years ago at night when you come home. I want you to eat my food and not leave it on the front porch for the bats. And I am not crazy for asking for these things.”
“I know I’ve been selfish ever since Ikoro came into the picture,” Ding admits. “But you should understand how these things work. I can’t bear to see our children like this. I need more time to get used to being two people. You know how it was when you married Felicity.”
“I never abandoned you,” I say. “I made room for you in my new love. I want you to do the same.”
The air crackles while I wait for Ding to speak. He chews the corners of his lower lip and paces across the room, before he finally nods in understanding and shakes my hand to seal the deal.
“Yes,” he says. “I’m sorry.” And halfway through saying it I realize that he became Ping, so the apology is from the both of them. I no longer see dark splotches all over their bodies, and it feels like the lifting of a great weight.
“Thank you,” I say. “Tell Ikoro I said good morning.”
After Ping leaves, I run straight to the children’s bedroom and tear open the matchbox. My children are still asleep. I look at their peaceful faces and, for the first time in a long while, my heart’s rhythm rises in joy.