Art by Giancarlo LaGuerta
Problem started when Ebere’s husband died by accident one morning on his way to the big city to race through some last-minute shopping for their daughter’s birthday party. When Ebere received the news, she was out on the veranda, sifting chaff from a tray of brown beans. She was about to prepare some beans for her daughter. Three year old Oluebube liked beans so much that she’d cry if her mother did not serve them with the white rice and some chicken stew she planned to serve at the party. Out on the lawn, a group of chattering, rural women milled about a huge pot of rice cooking on three huge stones. Between the stones, three logs of firewood burned slowly, sending plumes of smoke into the morning air, the smell of festivity finally taking hold of the neighborhood. To the right of the red fenced-in bungalow in which Ebere and her husband lived, a dreadlocked DJ stood in front on a turntable stand, playing Evi-Edna Ogholi’s “Happy Birthday,” his ears covered with a white headphone, and nodding his head to the rhythm of the song. In front of him, several children gathered, dancing, laughing, jumping about.
The man who brought the news of Ebere’s husband’s death was Udoka, who ran the biggest clothing shop in the village. He’d been driving to Enugu, in his Peugeot 504 wagon, when he came upon the scene of the accident and discovered that the life it had claimed was that of his kinsman.
Ebere took a second look at Udoka, smartly dressed in a blue polo shirt tucked into sharply ironed brown pants. His gold wristwatch shimmered in the morning sun, and Ebere thought his half-cut black leather shoe resembled a pair her husband used to own.
“You’re telling me that my husband is dead?” Ebere asked him, “My husband?”
Udoka reiterated that Ebere’s husband had indeed been killed and that he was very sorry.
Ebere screamed. A scream so loud that it startled the women chattering around the cooking pot. Some of them had wondered what a busy man like Udoka had come to do at the venue of a child’s birthday party, and so early in the day.
Quickly, the women rallied around Ebere. One of them stayed back to attend to their cooking, but even she could not keep her eyes from Ebere, wondering what the matter was.
After Ebere, crying, had reported what Udoka had told her, the women shuffled about, confused. There was the food they were cooking to celebrate a birthday party and there was the father of the celebrant who’d just died. They decided to gather their wits and act fast. Some led Ebere inside, stopping her from pulling at her hair as she’d started to. One of them asked the lone cooking woman to continue cooking; that way, at least Ebere would have something to eat now that, in this condition, she would not be able to cook anything. Then, they asked the DJ to stop playing, asked everyone to return to their houses while the rest of them piled into that red bungalow. Ebere would need all the company she could get.
“Over the three months that Ebere mourned Nduka’s death, she, as was customary, wore the same depressing outfit of a black wrapper, a black blouse, and a small black scarf wound around her head. She kept to her house. She visited neither friends nor went to the market. Being the vivacious person that she was, she could not wait for all of it to end.”
Over the three months that Ebere mourned Nduka’s death, she, as was customary, wore the same depressing outfit of a black wrapper, a black blouse, and a small black scarf wound around her head. She kept to her house. She visited neither friends nor went to the market. Being the vivacious person that she was, she could not wait for all of it to end. And the day it came to an end, one fine sunny morning, she took her daughter to school first, then upon her return home, she sat out on the veranda and polished her nails. Wearing a bright purple flowery gown, she was happy that she could finally put on makeup. What she could not have accounted for was the plan her mother-in-law had just initiated.
That morning, as she polished her nails, Ebere heard the door-gate of the compound creak open and watched as her mother-in-law lumbered in. They’d never liked each other, Ebere and her mother-in-law. The woman believed her son married a girl who came from dishonorable family: whose father had been banished from the village for siphoning the money meant for the extension of the village’s electricity project, and whose mother and siblings had joined the man of the house on exile, except for Ebere, who stayed back because she’d never supported her father’s thieving ways. Ebere, on the other hand, had never liked her mother-in-law, because she could not see what she, Ebere, had specifically done to the woman to incur so much hatred from her. However, Mother-in-Law said that a person was as good as the family they came from. Since Ebere did not agree with such logic, the animosity between both women raged underneath, paved over by Nduka’s love for both his wife and his mother. Now that Nduka was dead, Ebere could tell that all that animosity was finally about to erupt from the bowels of the earth and destroy the world as she knew it.
“Already painting your nails, ehn?” Mother-in-Law said, as she labored up the steps of the veranda. “I bet you couldn’t even wait for all of it to come to an end so you could again put on your dresses and remind everyone that you’re still so beautiful.”
“Do you have a problem with that?” Ebere did not take her eyes off the nail she was polishing.
Mother-in-Law sighed, shook her head, then said, “That’s what you have to say to your mother-in-law who left her house to visit you this early morning?”
“Should I dance instead? I beg you, Mama, I don’t have time for your troubles this morning.”
“My troubles? I see. Well, I’ve come to inform you of a serious matter. Yesterday, the elders met and decided that—are you even listening to me?”
“I’m listening to you.”
“Good. So, the elders and I have decided that you have to meet another man.”
Ebere sat up. For a while, she stared at Mother-in-Law, the old woman’s mass of gray hair pulled into a tight bun, her right hand resting on one of the pillars of the veranda for support. Since Mother-in-Law was also staring at Ebere, it seemed both women were using up the silence to let the message Mother-in-Law had just delivered simmer, that and to consider how it would change both of their lives.
“You people decided that I have to meet another man.” Ebere repeated what Grandmother had said, as if tasting its realness on her lips, then she laughed—hysterically. “But you know I cannot do that, Mama.” She laughed again because it was all so ridiculous. “Mama, are you serious: me, meet another man? Do you people know what year this is? We are not living in my grandmother’s time anymore.” And she laughed again.
Mother-in-Law watched Ebere make a joke of it all, wondering how best to take charge of the situation. “Ebere, this is a serious matter.”
“And I am serious that it is a joke. I beg you, Mama, I have to enjoy my first day out visiting friends. Don’t ruin it for me.”
With that, Ebere took leave of Mother-in-Law on the veranda. She went inside to retouch her makeup. Done, she put on some perfume and went to visit her friend, Ifeoma.
Unlike Ebere, Ifeoma did not think the demand was ridiculous. They were sitting in Ifeoma’s “artistic” living room, as Ebere once called it. A mural of the great Margaret Ekpo, power-fist in the air and all, rose against a white-painted wall. A red Persian rug bore the weight of three brown armchairs and a sofa arranged in an arc. And after Ifeoma had served Ebere a bottle of soft drink and had listened to her ordeal, she thought that although the year was 2002, a new millennium should have no bearing on the longevity of important cultural practices. All those centuries ago, the elders of the land converged at the sacred grove of Ezumezu. There, they made several pronouncements, struck their ofors to the earth, and with that, every pronouncement became a law binding every son and daughter of Imeokute. If they said that a woman like Ebere who’d not given her late husband a son, if they said a woman like Ebere must then sleep with a married man whose wife must give her consent, if they said such a man should father a son with Ebere, a son who would be born in the name of Ebere’s dead husband—he was the only surviving son of his own father—to continue the dead husband’s lineage, because only sons could continue a man’s line, if they said all of this, why should the new millennium matter? How sad a man’s spirit would be in the land of the ancestors if he had no surviving son to pour libations in his name!
“Wait, Ifeoma, are you saying that I should do it?”
“That’s not what I’m saying. I’m only saying that you may not like your mother-in-law, but it doesn’t mean that she’s wrong this time.”
“As far as I’m concerned, she will always be wrong. And if you decide to join these people in bullying me, you will also be wrong to me.”
“You better be reasonable, Ebere. And where do you think you’re going?”
“My house, of course, since you obviously don’t want me here. At least, thank God my daughter and I have a roof over our heads, that we do not have to depend on any of you.”
“You better be reasonable, Ebere. I’m saying this as a friend. Don’t try to go to the police with this matter. You’re not going to win it like the house incident.”
Standing by the door, Ebere laughed and laughed. “I fought for my husband to include my name in the deed of our house and that’s the only reason it is mine now, or some far-flung, random relative of my husband’s would have come to claim it, because I don’t have a son. That may have made my mother-in-law further hate me. I don’t care. I will do whatever I can to make sure that someone does not use my body for some bloody cultural experiment.”
“What the fuck do you mean by a ‘cultural experiment’? And you leave the law you studied in school out of this. This has nothing to do with the constitution. What the elders of the land did at the sacred grove of Ezumezu and the constitution are two different things. I can help you look for a man. It won’t take anything from you if you just stopped looking at things condescendingly. The man fathers a son with you and that’s all, and you go back to living your life. You don’t have to fight everything, my dear.”
“I’m sorry that that is precisely the point of my training: fighting against anything I don’t think is right.”
With that, Ebere walked out of Ifeoma’s living room, banging the door behind her.
That night, after Ebere had put her daughter to sleep, after she’d had her bath and creamed her arms and face, she sat on her bed and cried. There was no electricity so a blast of wind from the window was busy unsettling the flame of the candle she had placed on her dresser. She propped up the hard cover of a book with a jar of cream to barricade off the wind from the candle, then her eyes came upon the picture frame of her late husband on the dresser. She picked it up, stared at it, at the handsome man she’d married.
In those days when they first got married, Nduka would drive home from work in the middle of a sweltering afternoon. Wherever he found Ebere, he would lift her up in his arms, despite her protestations, while laughing about the meal she was cooking or the laundry she was leaving unattended. He’d hurry with her into their bedroom where they’d have passionate sex. Many times, Ebere would come out of their bedroom to the smell of burning food. These episodes became so frequent that some neighbors started buying Ebere and her husband bunches of banana and roasted groundnuts; they said it helped that bedroom exercise go smoothly. Nduka used to laugh because their neighbors probably thought he was bloated with excess libido.
“But are you not?” Ebere would laugh.
It was a standing joke that Nduka had never had sex until he married Ebere. Not because he was religious or anything of the sort; he was simply too busy building his quarry business that he did not have time for women until he met Ebere, whom he loved with his life, “and whom you want to kill with sex,” Ebere would add, teasing him whenever he’d started to praise himself for having stayed a virgin for his wife. Ebere herself was not a virgin, but Nduka did not mind. He loved her. He particularly liked how feisty she could be. Her energetic spirit went beyond being a lawyer. She was simply born to fight whenever she perceived that something was wrong. But she did not fight it when he, Nduka, asked if she could resign from the law firm where she worked at in Enugu. It was too far from their village where he was building his quarry, and there was no law firm in their village—or even the prospect of getting clients there. He asked if he could set up a grocery shop for Ebere in their village; Ebere did not fight it. She loved Nduka so much, and for the five years that they were married, she felt swaddled in his love. He was a good man.
Now, Ebere dropped the picture frame back on the dresser. The wind had picked up, thrashing the curtain about the window. Ebere was so tired that she blew out the candle and went to bed. When she woke up, she decided she’d do it—for Nduka’s sake.
The man Mother-in-Law chose for Ebere was called Ibe, an old man but a trusted one when it came to the good job of fathering sons. A retired soldier, Ibe was the father of six sons, all tall and all very handsome. Mother-in-Law said he would shoot a boy into Ebere’s womb before the next Eke market day. Ebere failed to see the joke. She just stared at Mother-in-Law, as if the old woman was blabbering in a language she’d never heard.
As per Ifeoma’s instructions, Ebere tried not to think too much of Ibe’s wrinkled skin or that he often smelled of cheap gin. If he could give her a son, none of that would matter. So every Tuesday and Thursday evenings, Ebere would welcome Ibe into her bed. Before intercourse, she would serve him either akpu or garri with some freshly prepared soup. Although Ibe preferred onugbu soup, Ebere sometimes took the liberty of serving him ofe egusi or ofe ogbono. She knew that this was not the type of person she was, that she was not a calculating person, one who traded off something of herself for gain. But Ifeoma said it was important that she stopped being conceited for once in her life. And she did her best to be. But when the child came, it was a girl, a squalling little girl who had her father’s puffy face rather than Ebere’s high cheekbones.
For two days, Ebere did not touch the girl, neither did she breastfeed her. It took the intervention of Mother-in-Law—who took care of the child all along—and some of the elders before Ebere was plucked from the depths of her mind into which she’d sunk. She could not believe the state to which she’d fallen: a brilliant lawyer who’d always believed in her completeness as a human being and for that reason, did not need a man to complete her. When Nduka had thrown money her way, she’d told him that she neither needed his money nor did she feel incomplete without a man in her life. If he couldn’t show her that he loved her and could complement her, she did not want him in her life. Now, how did that person become this woman who had slept with an old, rickety man because she wanted to birth a son? How did that person become this woman whose first impulse was to hiss when she was told she’d birthed a girl? It was shame at her reaction to the birth of her second daughter that prevented her from touching the girl. In her present state of mind, she didn’t feel worthy to be the girl’s mother. But she did forgive herself, and over the next months, she nursed her daughter with overwhelming love. The one promise she made to herself was this: if she ever again tried to have a son, she would do it on her terms: choose the man.
Two years later, Ebere met him. She was locking up her grocery shop at the marketplace, ready to go and pick up her eldest daughter from school, the same school where Ifeoma worked part-time as an arts teacher, when she could spare some time from her art studio. Ebere’s second daughter was with Mother-in-Law.
“Sorry, are you about to lock up?”
Ebere turned to look at the man who’d just spoken such impeccable English. He was tall and light-skinned, not handsome by Nduka’s standards, but he looked well-off.
“Sorry, I was told that yours is the only shop where I can find everything I need.” Laughing now, he said, “That woman over there said you’d like that I speak ‘supri-supri.’ I take that to mean that I speak English.”
Ebere smiled. “Yes, she meant that you speak English so eloquently. You’re not from around here, are you?”
“Oh, my wife is from this village, but I am from Uruagu, Nnewi. We moved here because this village has one of the best quarries in the country. I own one of the sites up there.”
“Oh, my late husband used to own one there, too. Of course, that was before the boom of the last two years.”
“I’m sorry about that. But we’re not making a fortune as some people think.”
Ebere smiled. “Okay, what do you want to buy? Your purchase would tell me if you’re indeed making a fortune or not.”
The man laughed nervously, the laughter of someone who’d been caught in the act. “Just some beverages for my wife. She has some expensive tastes.”
“Ah, there,” Ebere joked, smiling.
She helped the man with his purchase: tins of milk, tea, sardines; boxes of sugar, cornflakes, etc.
When Ebere visited Ifeoma that evening, she told Ifeoma that she’d found the man with whom she’d again try to have a son. This time around, Ifeoma had changed the sitting arrangement of her living room. The three armchairs sat in a straight line, the sofa placed in front of them, the arrangement resembling that of a classroom. From the lone teacher-like sofa, Ifeoma, carrying Ebere’s sleeping toddler, stared at Ebere in disbelief. “You found a man, Ebere? What do you mean by you ‘found a man’?”
“Oluebube, stop playing with Aunty Ifeoma’s paint,” Ebere said to her eldest daughter who was standing in front of Ifeoma’s worktable, now opening a bottle of green pastel color and running her color-covered index finger across her lower lip.
“Biko, leave the girl alone,” Ifeoma said. “Oluebube, look at me.”
The girl turned and Ifeoma said, “Puuurfect! You look amazing.”
“See, Mummy,” five-year-old Oluebube preened, “Aunty Ifeoma does not mind.” She shrugged and turned back to the set of pastel colors.
Turning from the girl to Ebere, Ifeoma said, “Ehen, I still don’t understand what you mean when you say you found a man. Ebere, you have no business finding a man yourself. It is improper. The elders, all those centuries ago, knew how dangerous it would be for a woman in your predicament to have to find her own man.”
“Ifeoma, I beg you, I’m tired of hearing about the elders and the lousy staffs they struck on the earth and what they pronounced. I just want to be happy.”
“And that’s the point, can’t you see? What you need is a man to give you a son, not one to make you happy. Can’t you see how terrible it would be for the wife if you sought her husband to make you happy? Happiness should be out of the question.”
“Oh, wow! So I don’t deserve to be happy?”
“You do. But you must defer that until you have a son, then you can do whatever you want.”
Ebere could not believe it.
“Stop looking at me like that, biko,” Ifeoma shrugged, re-knotting the ends of her braid with a rubber band. “Look,” she said, “I have always taken it upon myself to keep you grounded, because you can often give yourself over to these fantastical thoughts. Now, I beg you, Ebere, you have to be real here. I can see already that you like this man, and that’s already a problem.”
Regardless of Ifeoma’s reservations, she, Ifeoma, told no one that it was Ebere who had chosen Bonaventure. What she said was that it was she, Ifeoma, who’d chosen Bonaventure for Ebere. And truly, it was Ifeoma who went to speak to Bonaventure’s wife, Florence, on behalf of Ebere. Ifeoma and Florence had gone to primary school together and had struck some sort of friendship before Florence’s family moved to Nnewi. Since Florence did not know Ebere, it was Ifeoma who attested to Ebere’s good character. And Florence was sad to see that a woman could be in the kind of situation in which she depended on other people’s husbands to be able to live peacefully. So she agreed and convinced her husband to help Ebere, and Bonaventure was happy to help, impressed as he was by that solitary encounter he’d had with Ebere at her shop.
With Bonaventure, Ebere decided to adopt the Tuesday-Thursday schedule she’d kept with Ibe. Bonaventure, however, told her that she did not need to prepare him some food. It was insulting that he would have to be fed before they could have sex—what kind of man did she think he was?
She apologized that she was only being courteous. And although she was not one for cultural norms and the likes, she thought it was a warm gesture. While eating, they could use the time to talk, instead of him just coming over, walking into her bedroom and having sex with her—that would be odd.
Bonaventure agreed with the logic, and Ebere said it was the only thing the ancient fathers had got right.
Ebere laughed and told him not to bother. Ifeoma would have gotten the joke. In the end, Bonaventure and Ebere agreed that heavy meals like akpu and garri, along with whatever soup, was out of the question. Bonaventure was a light eater so she could make him some rice; other times, a bowl of pepper soup or other light meals would do. He could never do without his wife’s meals, which would mean that he’d barely have space for some more food. But since conversations would have to be had, well, eat they must.
Their conversations, from the beginning, were cordial. They found that their favorite topic was the administration of the state governor, Dr. Chimaroke Nnamani. Both of them agreed that he was a fairly good governor but a biased one, given how he was concentrating on attracting most of the developmental gains of the state to his hometown of Agbani—the state university, the federal law school, the air force secondary school, the private university, the dual carriage roads—while the central road in Ebere’s village was still unpaved. Bonaventure said Dr. Nnamani needed to be more distributive of the state’s resources, like his counterpart in Delta State, James Ibori.
“My dream is to one day contest for a position in the state house of assembly,” Ebere told Bonaventure. “State legislative houses need fiery lawyers like me to make laws. Laws that can, for example, compel state governors to more distributive of the locations in which they spend the state’s resources.”
“I think you would make a fine legislator,” Bonaventure said.
Bonaventure had meant to say it casually but the moment it dropped, he realized how intensely he’d said it, as if he was suddenly passionate about the dreams of this woman whom he was simply supposed to give a son.
Ebere, too, noticed how slightly Bonaventure flinched, as if embarrassed by what he’d said. She knew he’d started to be embarrassed by what was now a common suggestion: that he was taking care of Ebere; that he took her together with his wife to eat out at this or that restaurant, which he was not supposed to do, because it was not his job to take care of her. Even Florence had started to take issue with how much Bonaventure cared for Ebere. But not until that evening when Bonaventure casually mentioned how much he wanted to support Ebere’s dreams did she realize that something strange had happened: that a leopard had been found prowling Farm Road in daylight. It was now left for her to kill it or let it kill her. She decided on the former: she would kill it.
That evening, in the cover of dusk, and with her children still at Mother-in-Law’s where she always dropped them off on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Ebere ran to Ifeoma and told her that it was about time for her, Ebere, to stop taking that potion. She was now ready to get pregnant. Ifeoma who was frying some sliced plantain in her kitchen turned off the stove and turned to Ebere.
“My goodness, Ebere, what is wrong with you?” She went over to wash her hands at the sink. “Didn’t you say you wanted it to go on for quite some time, that you enjoyed his company and that if you became pregnant too soon, it would all come to an end?”
“That was before he fell in love with me.”
“Like you did?”
“Don’t be silly, Ifeoma. I merely liked and respected him.”
“And now, are you not in love?”
“That’s besides the point, Ifeoma. Jesus Christ! What I do does not matter; it’s what he does that matters. He cannot fall in love with me. I cannot do that to Florence. She has been more than generous to me.”
“Well, don’t you think the elders were right when they said that the woman cannot pick the man herself and that the man picked for her should be very old, like Ibe?”
“Oh my goodness, Ifeoma, fuck the elders!”
“Okay, fine. I will ask Gracey to give me the counter-potion. Let’s hope you get pregnant soon and that it’s a boy so we can all rest because, honestly, I’m tired.”
“And you don’t think I am?”
“Well, you didn’t seem to be when you wanted it to go on and on. So much for always rubbing it in my face that you’re beyond being calculating. Perhaps the world gets at all of us after all.”
“Well, fuck you.”
“When has that stopped you from being my friend?”
That night, everything changed.
Ebere was sleeping when the irritating honk of Ifeoma’s car woke her up. It was raining heavily. She checked the time: 3:38 am. Why would Ifeoma be about in her car at that time of the night?
Ebere ran out into the front yard with an umbrella, opened the gate to let Ifeoma in. Soon, Ifeoma jumped out of her car and started to scream something Ebere could not hear, the words racing past her, deadened by the raging thunder.
“What is it?” Ebere shouted, drawing close to the car to allow Ifeoma join her under the umbrella.
“I said, get the girls,” Ifeoma said. “We’re leaving the village right now.”
“Leaving the village?”
By now, they were on the veranda. “What is happening?”
“Bonaventure is dead,” Ifeoma said.
“I said, Bonaventure is dead,” Ifeoma shouted. “And this is not a time to be shocked. I really don’t know what the two of you discussed yesterday but it must have had an impact on him. The man just went up to his wife and told her that he loved you and would like to move in with you?”
“Are you deaf or something? Well, Florence lost it. She had always had this violent streak even in primary school. She took the knife with which she was peeling some oranges and stabbed Bonaventure.”
“This is not the time for that. You better go and get the girls. We’re leaving this village now. The only reason the mob has not arrived here already is because of this crazy rain. They’re saying that allowing a young man like Bonaventure to father a son with you was malpractice.”
“What do we do now?”
“Foolish question, Ebere. I said, go and get the girls. We’re leaving the village now. If we’re lucky, we’ll already be in Agbani by the time they get here.”
Just as Ifeoma was driving out of the compound, Mother-in-Law came running towards the car, as if she’d heard of what had happened and had come running down to check on her granddaughters and their mother, splashing about in the dark.
“Ebere! Ebere!” Mother-in-Law was screaming, running after the car. “Stop, stop, biko! Please, stop! Please, Ifeoma! Am I not begging you people?”
“We should stop for her, please,” Ebere said.
Ifeoma did not stop. She sped on, meandering through the soaked unpaved streets of the village, racing towards the expressway. She knew she had to drive as fast as she could, and that was what she did.
Spring / Summer 2023
Ikechukwu Ogbu is a Nigerian writer who holds a BA in English language and literature from the University of Benin, Nigeria. His works have appeared in the Threepenny Review, Lit Hub, and Joyland.
Giancarlo Calaméo LaGuerta is a multidisciplinary self-taught artist who works primarily in portraiture. Employing abstraction and surrealism through photography, collage, drawing, and digital media, his subjects show pain through rage, sorrow, or hysteria. Giancarlo is based in Gaborone where he continues to hone his craft.